A sophisticated racetrack in a rural setting with modern equipment and bright decor, Delaware Park has now become the first major track in the country to offer thoroughbred racing on Sunday. Having been racing on Sundays in Paris, Moscow and at Green Mountain in Vermont, I went to the first Sunday of racing at the duPont domain on May 30 with considerable interest.
The day was drizzly and dismal, more fitting for church than turf. When Sunday racing was proposed, the church people made pro forma flack, but with first post time scheduled for 1:30 they soon realized there was no conflict of interest. This day 15,825 loyal parishioners of past performances showed up.
"Children invited" has always been a slogan at Delaware Park, where family picnics have been prevalent ever since William duPont Jr. established the track on 680 acres near Stanton, Del. in 1937. (Mr. duPont, who died in 1965, did not have to worry a great deal about money, what with gunpowder, nylon and cellophane going for him, so no pains and no sums were spared to make this one of the most attractive racing establishments in the United States.)
There were about 35 children cavorting on the soggy grass of a playground in a deep grove of great trees back of the paddock and adjacent to the rail at the first turn into the backstretch. Shirley Taylor, a registered nurse, wrapped a shivering 5-year-old girl, daughter of a trainer, in a borrowed raincoat while explaining the reactions of her charges, who ranged in age from three to 13. As soon as the kids heard the roaring of "They're off!" they jumped on plastic hobbyhorses. One boy yelled, "I'm Canonero II," and whipped furiously. Another reported proudly that his father was a trainer. A girl named Denise, who adored having her picture taken, said she had no father but her mother had a horse or two. Parking their children in the playground seems as routine to trainers as parking their cars. Horseplayers, too, like to get their children out from under their feet and away from asking why Daddy bet that horse. Also, the playground is free, as is admission for children, and baby-sitters—well, that's betting money. But there were also plenty of kids in the stands and at the rail.
The day started off with a disqualification in the first race, causing groans from bettors who suddenly wished they had stood in church. The racing was respectable, with some good jockeys riding, including Bill Hartack, Eldon Nelson and William Passmore, who has seven children of his own but did not put them in the playground. A spot sampling of horseplayers showed that most were in favor of Sunday racing. "What else is there to do?" mumbled a surly fan who looked as if he had recently graduated from Marijuana High. There are no local professional sports teams to root for. The nearest baseball team is the Phillies. And root for them?
If they were going neither to church nor the races, people might visit the beaches, but Chesapeake Bay, Rehoboth Beach and Atlantic City are all lengthy drives. And sitting home and watching TV is a tiresome way to spend the day of rest when there's action only a few miles away.
One man, a parking attendant at the track, was opposed to Sunday racing. "I want to go to church," he said aggressively. And then added philosophically, "Oh, well, I guess I can go Tuesday when the track is closed." The other employees did not seem to mind. Ray Ciesinski, the chief usher, who has been working at the track for 25 years, prefers Sundays, as do his ushers, most of whom are students at the University of Delaware. When not working at the track, Ciesinski coaches cross-country and track at Newark High School not far from Wilmington. Lou Gross, the track bugler, teaches music in Newark schools; he likes Sunday racing and a change from Bach and Busoni.
Despite the dreary weather, people from outlying areas flocked in via automobile, buses and race trains. They came mainly from Philadelphia and the heavily populated sections of southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey, but buses from the New York area also brought large numbers. Management hopes that Sunday racing will attract more and more people from outlying areas. There will be six such racing days during Delaware's first meet (May 29 to July 5) and another six during the second meet (Aug. 21 to Sept. 26).
Delaware Park is a nonprofit corporation, and whatever it makes above its costly expenses goes to Delaware hospitals. So far, profits have hardly put the Irish Sweepstakes to shame, being no more than $100,000 in any recent year, but Sunday racing should raise that figure. The state of Delaware expects to gain $1.5 million in taxes once the public begins to go for it big. Other states may then follow suit. The state of Washington has had Sunday racing since 1933 and, more recently, so have Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Maine and Vermont, as well as Puerto Rico. Dover Downs, a little track not far from Delaware Park, also has it, and Brandywine Raceway, less than an hour's drive from Delaware Park, has Sunday night harness racing.
A patron that first Sunday at Delaware, a well-dressed, well-spoken man watching at the rail, said that although he has no use for trotters and pacers, he went to Brandywine one recent Thursday night and had three winning tickets on the Big Exacta (a complicated racing procedure that encompasses two races). Each ticket was worth $8,422.80 for $2. "I knew nothing about those horses," he said, "but I dreamed eight and five, so I bought 12 tickets on eight and five. Then I put three of those winning tickets on a couple of favorites I rather liked the idea of." After they came in, he was approached by enterprising bookies who bought his tickets at a discount, taking a 10¢ on the dollar profit in exchange for the convenience.
"I had so many $100 bills in my pockets I was scared. Those bookies, they hang around and see you exchanging winning tickets, and then they take them off your hands. They got some way of avoiding the tax man." He did not win the race he was watching but shrugged philosophically and said dreamily: "I guess I go to Brandywine tonight."