The Breeders’ Cup Forum: What a ‘Mile’ Can Do

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Horses on the turf at Penn National Horses on the turf at Penn National

One year ago, Dan Silver was revving up the New York Racing Association publicity machine as Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another took aim at the Belmont Stakes and a chance for Triple Crown glory. Then, 24 hours before the race, Silver was hastily arranging a press conference announcing the colt’s retirement. From my perspective, he handled both duties skillfully.

Silver left his position as NYRA director of communications a few months later when he was presented with an opportunity to become director of racing operations at Hollywood Casino at Penn National, the Penn National Gaming-owned track in Grantville, Pa. It’s the kind of position he’d hoped to find in racing when he took the University of Arizona racetrack industry’s one-year graduate program in 2007.

Silver, 33, caught the racing bug watching Strike the Gold charge to victory in a telecast of the 1991 Kentucky Derby, then started going to the track during high school, making the trek from Philadelphia to Delaware Park on weekends with friends.

After college, he worked a four-year stint as a minor league hockey announcer in Missouri. That was followed by his studies at the University of Arizona, and he joined NYRA shortly thereafter, working first as a marketing manager and then moving to communications.

In his first year at Penn National, Silver has helped create the track’s richest stakes race and biggest night ever, with this Saturday’s Penn Mile, a one-mile turf race for 3-year-olds carrying a $500,000 purse. Also on the card is the $250,000 Mountainview Handicap, for 3-year-olds and up going nine furlongs, and the five-furlong Pennsylvania Governor’s Cup, a $150,000 turf sprint for 3 and up.

What are the reasons behind the Penn Mile and the million-dollar night of racing?
Previously the stakes schedule at Penn National was about $1.5 million.  Traditionally we’d had some $100,000 stakes spread throughout the year. What we really wanted to do was follow the Charles Town model and try to create some event dates. Erich Zimny has done a good job creating a signature race with the Charles Town Classic. A lot of people may not have heard of the Penn National racetracks, so it’s about building up a brand, building up awareness.

How did you land on the date and the conditions of the Penn Mile?
We looked at all the different racetrack stakes schedules and tried to find a category that makes sense. I’ve always thought 3-year-olds on turf was an under-served category. We noticed that between the Grade 2 American Turf at Churchill Downs the day before the Kentucky Derby and the Grade 2 Virginia Derby in July, there’s really no big 3-year-old turf races.  When some of the trainers at NYRA learned I was coming to Penn National, they said we should take advantage of the turf course there.

The thought process was we could put this four weeks after the American Turf and get some horses from that race and the Transylvania (at Keeneland), and even get some horses that were on the Kentucky Derby trail and weren’t that successful on dirt. The hope is we can capitalize on some of the Triple Crown buzz. By putting it a week before the Belmont Stakes, we might capture some of those fans who only watch horse racing five weeks a year. For a track like us, it was a way to create a splash.

Dan Silver

Dan Silver

What kind of horses are you attracting?
Obviously we won’t know till after the draw (Wednesday), but Todd Pletcher has indicated he is bringing Jack Milton, the Transylvania winner, maybe Charming Kitten. Gary Contessa has said he’ll bring Rydilluc, Chad Brown is likely bringing a horse, John Sadler has talked about sending Joelito (fourth in American turf), and Ronny Werner has someone he may send. We’ve had a lot of interest in the race from all over the country.

Plus we’ve got the supporting races, which are also drawing a lot of interest.

Where can these races be seen on TV or online, and what are your hopes as far as handle is concerned?
We have free-streaming of our races online, www.hcpn.com/racing. We have a deal in place with HRTV, and they’ll be doing a special show dedicated to our program that night. Their studio hosts will be focusing on our races, from 6-8:30 p.m. (EDT).

Handle wise, because it’s unprecedented, uncharted territory, I’m not sure what to expect. The Governor’s Cup in 2009 did $377,000 in handle. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think we can eclipse that. Typically our handle is better in winter because there’s less competition. That could be something going against us. Our record for a single day is $2.17 million in 1998. It might be unrealistic to think we can hit that, but who knows?

What would you like this night to accomplish in terms of the track’s national profile?
I want to be able to showcase what Penn National has to offer. We have a great turf course. Our facility is very nice for those coming to the track for the first time. It should help bring a lot of credibility to our track. With jockeys like John Velazquez, Joel Rosario, and Javier Castellano all expected to be here, having graded stakes winners here, that will showcase what Penn National can do.

You’ve heard the complaints that Penn National Gaming is a casino company first that looks at racing only as a necessity. How do you respond to that argument?
This big day wouldn’t be possible if you weren’t able to put advertising and marketing muscle behind it. From my experience, the folks I work with have been really great in letting me have the budget to promote this race.

One complaint I’ve heard is that there aren’t any billboards promoting our racing, but this year we’ve got a big billboard up for the Penn Mile. A lot of horsemen have thanked me for doing that. Our marketing and finance folks have given me leeway for marketing this day. My sense so far is that people are very excited about having a big day.

How do the local horsemen feel about putting so much stakes money into one night?
Horsemen have been very good.  They’ve been very supportive of this night. They’re excited about being able to showcase the facility. If this is a successful day handle-wise, it benefits our horsemen.

A year ago, you were preparing for a Triple Crown try by I’ll Have Another. I know there’s been a lot of uncertainty at NYRA, but why did you leave the big stage in New York for a small track in Pennsylvania?
I loved my five years at NYRA. I just thought for me personally it was a great opportunity to get experience managing the operations of a racetrack. It wasn’t as much about the situation at NYRA in terms of what was going on with the state, it was more about getting experience on the operations side. This is an opportunity with Penn National to get some experience operating a racetrack, and also to use some of my public relations and marketing background.

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  • LibertysKid

    Here is a passionate racing fan who worked his way into a position that can influence the sport for the better. Instead of bemoaning the game from the blogosphere, young people like Dan Silver at Penn National and Erich Zimny at Charles Town have chosen careers where they can work each day as advocates for horseplayers and horsemen while balancing everyone’s wish list against the harsh economic realities that racetracks face. It’s a tough role to play, but racing has a bright future if more young fans like them make the commitment.

  • anderson5999

    Ray, for as many stories as you’ve done about the various scandals that have erupted at Penn National the last few years, you should have asked Dan how he felt about stepping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

  • Allen Gutterman

    Dan is a very impressive young man and the kind of person you want operating a racetrack down the road.

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