Readying to scratch Delaware Park and its Handicap off the bucket list

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

July 5th, 2016

For a variety of reasons (i.e. raising kids, finances, work commitments, etc.), adding to my list of "Thoroughbred Tracks Visited" long ago ceased to be a feasible hobby. It was not by choice, mind you, but fate and acceptance of it eventually breeds contentment (sort of).

Whereas in the past I would have been happy to notch any track and at any time, nowadays I've become more discerning, preferring instead to revisit old favorites or attend the major events whenever possible.

For the first time since my ill-fated trip to Epsom Downs 11 years ago, I'll attempt to add to that dormant list on July 16. Delaware Park has long been on an ever shrinking bucket list of U.S. tracks I truly long to visit, and what better time to go than on Delaware Handicap Day?

I'm thrilled Delaware is still around to check out, unlike some tracks on my list and some that never made it on. Hit so hard in the early 1970s from regional saturation that it was the first major East Coast track to introduce Sunday racing, Delaware limped along until the early 1980s when it closed for several years. While it re-opened soon after, it wasn't until slots were added to the wagering menu in the 1990s that it finally founds its feet again.

From all the photographic evidence I've seen, Delaware Park is a racino that still likes to present itself as an actual racetrack. Its shady, tree-laden paddock has to be one of the most beautiful in the country. It also has a sparkling history that, for buffs like me, puts many others to shame.

Delaware Park's high point was certainly the post-war era until about 1969, when it was a part of a circuit with the major Maryland tracks and ran unencumbered from competition in nearby Philadelphia. It was actually a part of two circuits if you think about it. The Maryland/Delaware circuit had Bowie-Pimlico-Delaware-Laurel, and the "Philadelphia" circuit (pre-Pennsylvania racing) had Garden State-Delaware-Atlantic City. There was never any overlapping dates within the two circuits.

There were so many greats that won stakes at Delaware in that era listing them all would take awhile, but suffice it to say the 1960s stands out: Cicada, Affectionately, Mongo, Kelso, Buckpasser, Damascus, Dark Mirage and Gallant Bloom were among those that visited its winner's circle.

Of course, lucrative events for fillies and mares has always been Delaware Park's niche in the broader national landscape. For years the Delaware Handicap was the richest race of its kind in the country, and even when the track's fortunes declined in the 1970s it was still being won by champions such as Susan's Girl, Our Mims, Late Bloomer, and Relaxing.

Proceeds from casino revenue have enabled the Delaware Handicap to resume its place near the top in the past decade, though its 1 1/4-mile distance arguably deters a significant share of the division's heavyweights from participating. Nonetheless, recent winners have included champion Fleet Indian and future Hall of Famer Royal Delta (twice), and who can forget the epic duel between Blind Luck and eventual Horse of the Year Havre de Grace in 2011?

It remains to be seen whether the winner of this year's edition of the Delaware Handicap will be considered one of the greats of her generation. At any rate, I'll leave Delaware Park satisfied in knowing I got to see one renewal of a race with a tremendously rich history while (finally) filling slot number 24 on my "Thoroughbred Tracks Visited" list.

(Delaware Park entrance photo: Ed DeRosa)

(Delaware Park paddock photo: John Wayne for