On January 11, 2019, the official purchase of Presque Isle Downs by Churchill Downs Incorporated signaled in a new and exciting era of horse racing for Erie, Pennsylvania. Horse racing has an extensive and interesting history in the region that can only be bolstered by this new partnership.

With Churchill Downs, Presque Isle becomes part of an organization that is synonymous with success in the racing industry. The Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby are products of Churchill Downs, with the Derby being the most popular race in the world. Presque Isle is the newest addition to the successful racing family, which also includes Fair Grounds Race Course, Arlington International, the harness tracks Miami Valley and Ocean Downs, and the premier online wagering platform, twinspires.com. The purchase has the feel of something new and exciting for Presque Isle Downs and Erie, bringing new hope to a region that has had its ups-and-downs in the horse racing industry.

Erie’s first experience with horse racing started on May 1, 1973, when Commodore Downs, located in Fairview township, opened its doors to racegoers. Commodore Downs was designed as a 5/8 of a mile oval and ran thoroughbred races. While the track holds a special place in the hearts of the people who attended races there, it was a short-lived operation marred by financial issues, low attendance rates, and an inability to attract prominent horses to the races due to low purse sizes—races were often run for purses as low as $1,500. The original operation lasted only ten years, as the business originally folded in 1983.

For all of the difficulties that the short-lived Commodore Downs had as a business operation, it has a unique claim to fame in the world of thoroughbred racing, as the track hosted the oldest winning thoroughbred in North American history. On September 7, 1981, the gelding Behavin Jerry won the final race of his career at the age of 17, capping off a career consisting of 307 races. Track personnel forced the retirement of Behavin Jerry out of fear for his well-being.

Racing was not quick to die at the old Fairview track, however, as horse-racing enthusiasts wanted to see the track succeed. With new financial backing, the track reopened as Lake Shore Meadows in 1984 and featured standardbred harness racing until closing again due to financial losses in 1986. Later in 1986, the track reopened for the last time under the name of Erie Downs. Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, live racing only lasted two seasons at Erie Downs, with the 1987 meet being the final meet at that location. By June 1988, simulcast wagering was shut down and the operation closed for good.

Although the initial live racing experience failed in Erie, simulcast racing found its way back to the city of Erie when Penn National Gaming opened The Downs at Erie betting parlor in 1991. The off-track wagering location remained open until 2007, with the opening of Presque Isle Downs.

Initially owned by MTR Gaming, Presque Isle Downs opened with the intentions of making horse racing a profitable, safe, and prominent fixture in Erie and the thoroughbred racing industry as a whole. Up to this point, all three of those boxes can be checked off. The one-mile track opened up on Labor Day weekend 2007, and the added boost that the track received in purse sizes from casino revenue immediately lured quality horses and horsemen to the track, a trend that still continues to this day.

Presque Isle was also on the frontlines of equine safety when the track was constructed, as its surface consists of a synthetic material known as tapeta, a mixture of sand and rubber fiber covered in wax, that was initially created by Michael Dickinson for the sole purpose of limiting the on-track breakdown of horses. Presque Isle was the first track in North America to use this surface, and the investment continues to pay for itself. For the 2018 season, Presque Isle had only two on-track breakdowns from 5815 starts, which was the lowest rate in the United States.

Along with being statistically the safest track in the country, Presque Isle has become an important place to go for potential Breeder’s Cup runners. The Presque Isle Downs Masters Stakes is a Grade II race at 6 and a half furlongs for fillies and mares that was initially intended to be a prep race for the Breeder’s Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. Since its inaugural running in 2007, the race has acted as much more than just another stop along the road for Breeder’s Cup hopefuls; it has consistently produced winners. Over the twelve years that the race has been in existence, six of the winners were found in the starting gate of the Master’s Stakes earlier in the year. From 2009-2014 every winner of the race had run previously at Presque Isle Downs, with the legendary horse Groupie Doll winning the Master’s Stakes and Filly and Mare Sprint in back-to-back years in 2012 and 2013. Twice, in 2013 and 2017, horses that ran in the Master’s Stakes together finished first and second in the Sprint. Additionally, the reigning Filly and Mare Sprint champion Shamrock Rose found herself in the winner’s circle at Presque Isle Downs earlier in the summer, by merits of a win in the Malvern Rose Stakes.

Along with key races and lucrative horses, the track has not had a problem with luring important trainers and jockeys to the track the way that its predecessors in the area had in the past. World-class trainers such as Todd Pletcher, Steve Asmussen, and Graham Motion have saddled horses at the track and top jockeys, including Mike Smith and Julien Leparoux have found themselves in the irons here. Jockey Antonio Gallardo consistently ranks highly in the win column on a yearly-basis nationwide, and he finds a home at Presque Isle Downs every summer.

The prominence and innovations utilized by Presque Isle, and the horsemen, jockeys, and horses it has drawn, have re-written the history books of racing in Erie for the better, and the future seems to be getting brighter. While the tough-luck of racetracks past and the history of off-track betting has given grit and character to the city over the years, Presque Isle Downs has moved racing in the Erie area to the front of technology, safety, and success in the world of thoroughbred racing. With the track’s purchase by industry powerhouse Churchill Downs, the most successful years surely lie ahead. The 2019 meet has the potential to be the most successful meet in Erie’s history as Presque Isle finds itself as the newest track to be covered by the iconic Twin Spires logo.

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