PLAINS TWP. — Back in the early days, when he first joined what is now known as Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, Dale Rapson remembers the wheels almost coming off the track’s cart.
“We used to be a minor-league track here,” Rapson said. “People used to laugh at us.”
Pocono Downs is now in the big leagues of harness racing, scheduled to host three of the most coveted events in the sport this season — including the Breeders Crown Final.
“It is going to be the place to be this summer,” predicted Rapson, the track’s vice president of racing.
Three decades ago, though, Pocono Downs was a place few wanted to be.
With paltry purses and race-fixing accusations, track fans nearly caused a riot in the early 1980s.
“One year, they were throwing benches on fire at the drivers,” Rapson said. “It was a bad race and the payouts were real low. We had to cancel the remaining races on the card that night.”
Leap ahead some 30 years, and the Pocono Downs cards are now filled with excitement.
The track will host Sunstakes Saturday on June 22 and Superstakes Saturday on Aug. 17 with combined purses of the days expected to pay out $10.5 million. That’s even before they get to the Breeders Crown eliminations and finals, which are scheduled to pay out $5.45 million Oct. 11, 12 and 19.
“The way it’s changed from then to now is leaps and bounds,” said driver Matt Romano, who won the 2,500th race of his career at Pocono Downs last season. “Mohegan Sun coming in really helped it. It made us as horsemen get our owners involved in bringing better-class horses.”
It all starts Saturday night, with the first leg of the Bobby Weiss Series, with three-years running at a colt and gelding pace.
This year’s schedule also includes the James Lynch Memorial, Earl Beal Jr. Memorial and Ben Franklin eliminations and final all being run on Sunstakes Saturday in June. And two months later, the Battle of Brandywine consolations and the Colonial and Valley Forge runs and consolations will come to the track for Superstakes Saturday.
“It’s probably going to be our biggest season ever,” said Rapson, who has been at the track since 1980.
The average purses at Pocono Downs, Rapson estimated, rose from between $15,000 and $20,000 per race day in 1983 to $63,000 per day in 2008 to $175,000 per day this upcoming season.
“Now our purses are so high, the thought of fixing a race doesn’t make sense,” Rapson said. “The first thing we did was make this an honest place to race. The problem (back in the early ’80s) was the purses were so low, the horsemen couldn’t make a living even if they won. We got rid of a lot of drivers, trainers, owners we knew were involved with tactics they shouldn’t have been involved in.”
The major changes, though, came with a couple of shifts of ownership according to Rapson.
Private owner Joseph Banks assumed control of the track in 1983 and started it on a path to respectability. When he passed away in 1996, Penn National Gaming purchased Pocono Downs and kept it growing.
And the track really began to blossom when the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority bought the track in 2005, demolished the grandstand and built a casino alongside the track, boosting purses dramatically.
“Now we’ve been voted one of the top 10 tracks in the country,” Rapson said. “We have come a long way.
“We’re a major-league track.”