McChump's Atlantic Rim Tour - Delaware Park

Now lessee ... How the heck to get out of Hampton ...

1:Go West on I-64 WEST to I-295 (Exit 200). 64.6 miles (103.9 km)
2:Go Northwest on I-295 towards Richmond, VA to I-95 NORTH (Exit 43). 15.7 miles (25.3 km)
...

No, no, NO! That stupid computer says to go back to Baltimore. AGAIN! Apparently Baltimore is the center of the Mapquest universe in the mid-Atlantic. Phooey on that!

So PhC M was prevailed upon to dig her trusty Rand-McNally out of the back seat of her car from under all the junk that hadn't yet quite made it into the house after the recent move, and there was soon a replacement set of written directions on a small scrap of paper. Not nearly so precise, but good enough.

While it's unclear whether the new route was actually faster than what the computer said, or any more fuel efficient, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was well worth the $10.00 admission as a marvel of human engineering, and the Virginia and Maryland shore country on the east side of Chesapeake Bay was far more beautiful and interesting than bumper to bumper traffic at 75 mph on I-95 could ever have been. That little detached sliver of Virginia, in particular, would be a great quiet vacation getaway spot - small towns, farms with huge old farmhouses, small mom-and-pop motels, non-franchise businesses of every kind, especially antique shops, and cheap fresh seafood, shrimp and crabs, for sale at roadside stands every few miles. Lotsa speed zones, though. McChump Travel Tip: When in the Dover, DE, don't be takin' the 13 through town when the 1 is a option. Next time.

--- Delaware Park, Wilmington, DE, Sun. Sept 27 ---

No problem finding this track, either. Good directions from the track's website. Don't try parking in that first lot though - sign says that one is for casino players, not you, chump. Horse race patrons have to keep on going past the back of the plant and up the hill into a lot to the west of the track. A lot that wasn't too terribly crowded, even though parking was free. But all the same, a little bus came by to pick up the few patrons waiting at the stop and deposited them at the front door. Admission: free. Track program: $1.50, which included the Belmont pp's as well as Delaware.

Tough to see what this track's about from the outside, as the entire thing is hidden in a veritable forest of big, old trees. Can't see it at all from that west parking lot. Can't see a whole lot from the level of the main entrance, either. Just mostly the door in.

This level - 2nd level clubhouse side as it turns out, grandstand side being blocked off by sheets of plywood - has a small, but nice, little gift stand right by the door, and the program stand, and some voucher and betting machines along the wall, some windows in the middle, a large space with chairs and tables and TV's for simulcast betting which were well attended, and some concession stands up front. Kinda dark and low and not real appealing, however, for the live racing kind of guy, so a trip out front through the glass doors past a nice looking little restaurant area was immediately in order.

Directly out the clubhouse doors is a landing, of sorts, between the upper seating area and a lower seating area which exists only on the clubhouse end of the track and takes up what would be the apron at this end. Upper area covered; lower not.

The track out front is very nice, with a decent although somewhat dried and beat up turf course, set around an infield that featured a huge pond with swans and some volunteer aquatic birds. Not a whole lot of fancy landscaping, but some, including a little low hedge that spelled out "Delaware Park", and some flowers down by the finish line. More huge old trees provide a nice backdrop, with the stables visible down past the grandstand end near the casino parking lot.

First impression of the plant looking from this terrace down toward grandstand end was wow! This must have been one of the grand dames of racing in the mid-Atlantic at one time. It's a huge, long open air stand done up in dark red concrete paint with yellow with blue trim wood paint, covered by one of the old style roofs, wooden boards supported by a spidery metal girder framework, many rows of wooden seats, an enclosed turf club or whatever perched up on the roof in the center between club and grandstand ends, and then a rather comical spotter's booth or something on top of that, which resembled nothing so much as a small Florida fishing-boat-theme fried seafood stand. There is also an enclosed seating area up at the top of the clubhouse stands.

The apron down below on the grandstand end was composed of nice bricks, or small flagstones, also painted a deep red, with many small sturdy plastic benches free for the taking, along with metal picnic tables.

The place looked like it could easily have entertained crowds of 30,000 or more in its heyday. This warm, beautiful, clear Sunday afternoon it was entertaining maybe 300, and that only when the live races went off and people came up from the packed simulcast areas below. That 300 included the possibly 20 up in the enclosed clubhouse seats, and mostly the crowd was male, and older, and had a racetrack regular look to them. Many more people must have been betting on the Delaware races via simulcast, however, as the amounts in the pools were very respectable.

Closer inspection revealed that the plant has certainly seen better days. Paint peeling everywhere, entire sections of seats broken and/or simply removed, large sections down on the grandstand end simply closed off to public use, and thick dust and pigeon droppings almost everywhere under the roofed area. Finding a suitable seat anywhere in the stands was an adventure, despite thousands to choose from. Certainly there were none up in the turf club, as that structure seems to have been relegated to storage, with a few windows thoughtfully left open so the pigeons can fly in and out.

Meanwhile, out on the track, a perfectly good live racing program was going off with little attention from the residents of the greater Wilmington area. The card on the day consisted of 10 races, the 10th being an Arabian race which hardly counts. Field sizes were on the smallish side, with seven horses being the norm, which was surprising, as the purses were nothing to sneeze at: $24k for maidens, $8k for $5k claimers, $13,500 for $20k maiden claimers, $38k for optional claimer/allowance horses ($100k), $28k and $30k for n2x and n3x allowance animals, on up to the feature of the day, $40k added for the White Star Line Stakes, 5f turf for 3^ fillies and mares. Just two turf races, and pretty much all the rest 6f dirt sprints.

Most horses showed Del as their most recent start in the pp's, but there were also lots from other circuits, like Belmont, and Saratoga, and Monmouth, and Philadelphia Park. Surprisingly few from Maryland, despite all Joe's gloom and doom that the higher purses at Delaware would lure horses away from that circuit. Top jock by a landslide was Michael McCarthy, with Brent Bartram, Robert Colton, and Joseph Rocco dueling for a distant second. Trainers Allen Iwinski, Frank Passero, and Robert Carmac were tightly bunched at the top of the trainer's standings.

And winning money at Delaware, at least on this day, was as easy as taking candy from a baby. No wrong, nohow, exactas and win bets coming in as predictable as Italian trains, and the entire deficit run up in the previous two days at Charles Town and Colonial was erased.

In between all this good fortune, more exploring was required.

The biggest surprise of the day was walking back into the clubhouse through a different door and finding yet another room all given over to simulcasts, and packed, but with a balcony on the left end overlooking what had to be the paddock. And what a stunning sight from that balcony! This paddock and walking ring rivals the one at Keeneland for beauty. Surrounded by a red brick fence and flower planters is a huge park of a paddock with a long walking ring that surrounds and runs through at least a dozen, if not more, huge old trees. Between the paddock and the track there's a very nice, large and beautiful picnic grove. The whole area is even more impressive from ground level. This is the best part of Delaware Park, hands down. Out here, the peeling paint and crumbling, empty, seats of the stands are forgotten, and there's simply the the majesty of horseracing. One could easily be persuaded to simply spend all day in the picnic/paddock area and ignore the rest of the plant.

Leading back in from the paddock, the ground floor of the clubhouse seems given over to track offices. Very attractive foyer, with lots of marble and wood. Up the escalator, and what the heck, up another escalator, and suddenly there it is: The Casino. What a huge difference up on this level. Plush, state of the art simulcasting parlor on the clubhouse end, well attended, a fancy sandwich bar, the "Beefstro" ($4.95 beef sandwich with chips and pickles - yum. Far more attractive than the $1.75 hot dog and $2.00 sausage downstairs.), and then the ultra-fancy casino, running the entire length of the 3rd level concourse grandstand, and packed with folks dropping in that cash. Cha-CHING! Decent import beers for $3.25 for sale at the casino bars (and downstairs, too).

Unlike the Charles Town casino, where all the doors leading out to the horse racing area have been sealed shut, the doors from the Delaware Park casino still provide access to the grandstand seats. Pretty exciting scene out there: 3 girls from the casino out taking a smoke break and talking about their boyfriends, and two other patrons watching the races, one of whom was sound asleep, surrounded by thousands of empty seats, most of them sealed off from public use. Meanwhile, a large truck backed into one of the ground floor grandstand doors from the apron and began taking on a load of garbage. It was unclear during this visit exactly what has become of the ground floor concourse of the grandstand, but it seems it is probably no longer associated with horse racing in any meaningful way.

And then it was time to depart.

The McChump Tour has now visited all the major slots tracks, along with some minor ones, and never before was there ever the feeling that racing was simply tossed out there as an excuse for a casino. Not even at Prairie Meadows. With the exception of the well kept paddock and the lush 3rd floor race book at Delaware, it isn't real obvious that Delaware Park has spent a whole lot of their slots money on keeping their plant in repair. Or for that matter, clean. Or for that matter, promoted to the general public to any great degree. It could be a beautiful place. It obviously was, once. Hopefully in coming years some of that money will be used to fix the place up.

On this particular day, the experience was a sad one, watching a decent live racing program with a teeny ghost crowd in a huge old and once proud facility that is crumbling away. Almost as sad as the final day at Atlantic City. It has to be excruciating for racing fans in the Wilmington area.

Can't give the place a thumbs down, because that is reserved for places that treat patrons rudely or rip them off, and that definitely wasn't the case here. All the employees were very nice and helpful and cheerful, and the prices were more than reasonable. But it can't be thumbs up either, for that's for places that are fun to visit. Not sad, or disappointing. So a shrug of the shoulders it must be, and a kind of "what the hell" shrug at that.

Call us back when the live racing is important, Del. If this is the future of racing, the McChump Tour don't want nothing to do with it.

There's a second way out of the parking lot that leads out around the back of the track, and it's amazing just what a huge piece of prime real estate Delaware Park sits on. One can only imagine the condo developers drooling over this. Soon as that pesky horse racing goes away.

Continue on to Part 4.


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