Harrah’s Philadelphia, which is actually located in neighboring Chester, Pennsylvania, was opened in 2006 as a harness racing course, with slot machines added just four months later.

The opening of Harrah’s Chester (as it was originally called until 2012) came on the heels of a major revitalization effort in Chester, a community hard hit over several decades. The industrial city suffered mightily as once thriving plants closed, and by 1995, with unemployment rates soaring, Chester was a haven for crime and needed a bailout.

After over a billion dollars in investment since 1995 the city has managed to reinvent itself, and part of that reinvention is Harrah’s Philadelphia. The $400 million casino and racecourse overlooks the Delaware River and generates more gaming revenue than all but three other Pennsylvania casinos.

From Horse Racing to Casino

Gambling on horse racing was not legalized in Pennsylvania until 1963 but by the 1970s it had already become the Sport of Kings in Philadelphia.

Horseplayers had their pick of five tracks in the Delaware Valley, all within a short drive. Day or night, thoroughbreds or Standardbreds, winter or summer, Philadelphia gamblers could always find a horse to put $2 down on the nose.

But by 2006 only the old Keystone Park was limping along in southeast Pennsylvania. When the money men at Harrah’s were granted a license to open a slots parlor south in the Philadelphia satellite city of Chester it came with a giant leather horse’s rein attached—they had to also construct the first new race track in the Delaware Valley in almost 40 years.

The Harrah’s-Chester racetrack for trotters and pacers opened to rave reviews on September 10, 2006. The crushed limestone surface on the 5/8-mile oval quickly proved to be one of the swiftest in the country.

The setting was unique as well. The track was built on the banks of the Delaware River with remnants of Chester’s proud shipbuilding heritage visible in the background and sea-bound freighters passing by on the water. At one point the track is actually constructed on a partial bridge over the river, spanning a former industrial dump that precipitated a massive environmental cleanup.

The specially-designed bridge is unlike any in America and has earned the nickname “The Miracle Turn.” Since horses arrive directly by boat there are no permanent stables required at Harrah’s and the paddock can accommodate 131 horses on race days.

With the racetrack in place the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board still had to grant Harrah’s a conditional slot machine license. All went well and the casino part of the racino opened four months later on January 22, 2007, one day earlier than operators had announced.

In 2010 the Pennsylvania Legislature approved table games and Harrah’s added traditional and high-limit table games that summer. In 2012, as casino play dropped with the addition of other area casinos, Harrah’s dropped the “Chester” name and replaced it with “Philadelphia.”

Harrah’s Rebranding and Grand Reopening

The name switch was at first interpreted as a rejection of Chester, a once-bustling manufacturing city that had fallen on harsh times. In fact, it was just a tacit acknowledgement of what had always been—Harrah’s depends on gambling money from the Philly market.

Situated just minutes off busy I-95, Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack is only eight miles south of Philadelphia International Airport and less than a half-hour drive from Center City Philadelphia.

Becoming Harrah’s Philadelphia was only a cog in a general re-branding effort by the five-year old racino that focused on non-gambling pursuits. Three new restaurants were opened and an increased emphasis placed on entertainment, starting with a summer concert series of nationally known acts.

The grand re-opening, in May 2012, featured legendary competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi who set a world record by devouring a Philly cheesesteak in less than 24 seconds.

How big is Harrah’s Philadelphia?

Harrah’s is an energetic player in the ultra-competitive Philadelphia market. While its 2,803 slot machines are about average for a Pennsylvania gaming house only two state casinos claim more than its 125 gaming tables.

Its approximately $330 million in yearly revenues make Harrah’s the second biggest player in the Philadelphia market and among the four busiest casinos in Pennsylvania.

Having been built after Pennsylvania passed its casino law, Harrah’s Philadelphia doesn’t have the legacy of some of the other racetracks turned racinos in the state. But Harrah’s proximity to Philadelphia and other major population bases has propelled it toward the top of the state’s casinos nonetheless.

Of the six Category 1 racinos in the state, only Parx Casino and Racing generates more revenue than Harrah’s Philadelphia.

2015 casino revenue by operator in Pennsylvania through April 2015:
Parx – $171,181,594
Sands Bethlehem – $162,593,150
The Rivers – $118,178,351
Harrah’s – $97,639,896
SugarHouse – $94,031,528
Mohegan Sun – $86,391,730
Penn National – $84,833,689
The Meadows – $79,650,980
Mount Airy – $57,960,739
Presque Isle – $41,197,844
Valley Forge – $37,431,398
Nemacolin – $11,077,835

Well situated… just off the beaten path

One major part of Harrah’s success is its semi-prime location. The casino/racecourse is located far enough away from the city proper to be a “getaway,” but still easily accessible by a number of major routes not so far off the beaten path to be a “haul” to get there.

Despite not sitting well with Chester residents, the name change from Chester to Philadelphia is also unsurprising when you consider Chester’s population of 34,000 compared to Philadelphia’s 1.5 million residents, not to mention the name recognition Philadelphia has to tourists from all over the world. And considering its proximity to Philly, most visitors might not even realize they left the City of Brotherly Love when they arrive at Harrah’s.

Furthermore, most Philadelphians can reach Harrah’s in less than 30 minutes and the casino/racecourse is just a stone’s throw from Philadelphia International Airport (located at the southern edge of Philadelphia), about a 10-minute car ride.

Other nearby cities Harrah’s can draw patrons from include Wilmington, Delaware (20 minutes away), Camden, New Jersey (30 minutes), Trenton, New Jersey (about an hour away), and Baltimore, Maryland (about an hour and 15 minute drive).

The Story of a Man Called Bill Harrah

William Fisk Harrah was born in Pasadena, California in 1911, the son of a lawyer and politician who neither smoked nor drank and found gambling monotonous. Bill Harrah began studying mechanical engineering at UCLA but was driven from school by the Great Depression.

He went to work in various family businesses manning a hot dog stand and a pool hall and also running a game of chance called the Circle Game where a ball rolled down a board clicking off card suits and numbers.

Weary of harassment by local officials over the legality of his little gambling game, Harrah departed the Golden State for Reno in 1937 and opened a bingo parlor. Scarcely two weeks later he turned the key for the last time of the failed operation, little realizing that his kaput bingo game would be the foundation for America’s greatest gaming empire.

Harrah’s Plaza Tango started up again in July of 1938. In June 1946 Harrah launched his first full-service casino on the ruins of the old Mint Club, trumpeting his operation as “Nevada’s most beautiful casino.”

Nine years later Harrah’s was in operation on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe. Bill Harrah died in 1978, five years after the company stock became the first gaming business to appear on the New York Stock Exchange.

In 2010 Harrah’s Entertainment became Caesar’s Entertainment Corporation. The name Harrah’s, however, remains the key brand for the largest gaming company in the world, operating over 50 casino properties.

Inside the property

License allowances and restrictions

As a racino, Harrah’s Philadelphia is Category 1 license holder, permitted to operate a casino (slots and table games) so long as they abide by the minimum racing days conditions laid out by the state.

As a Category 1 casino, Harrah’s Philadelphia is permitted to house up to 5,000 slot machines and 250 table games.

Slot and table options

Harrah’s Philadelphia is one of the larger casinos in the state, with over 2,700 slot machines on its casino floor, along with 126 table games.

Among the casino’s table game offerings is a 35-table poker room.

A Unique Race Track Experience

Patrons will find that Harrah’s has not done much daring or innovative with the standard racino format. The most unique part of the plant is the part of the formula most overlooked in such operations—the racetrack.

All races are held during the daytime and on a warm, sunny day the view across the Delaware River is the best racing seat in Pennsylvania.

Harrah’s World Series of Poker Branded Room

The Poker Room at Harrah’s Philadelphia is Pennsylvania’s only official WSOP room and offers satellite tournaments for all major World Series events.

The 35-table room, sited just off the main racebook, hosts the Philadelphia Poker Open series with a $100,000-guaranteed main event from a $500 buy-in.

For cash games, no-limit Texas Hold ‘Em and limits up to $20-$40 lure players of all abilities. Tables will also typically form for Seven-Card Stud and pot-limit Omaha games. Harrah’s Philadelphia Poker Room also maintains a Facebook page with tournament updates and current room condition posts.

Harrah’s Online Gambling Potential

If the state passes an online gambling bill, Harrah’s is expected to be a key player in the Pennsylvania online gaming industry, particularly if Pennsylvania enters into interstate agreements with other states.

Harrah’s parent company, Caesars Entertainment, is heavily involved in regulated online gaming in the U.S. as it operates online gaming sites in Nevada and New Jersey, and is one of the principles involved in California’s efforts to legalize online poker through its tribal partner, Rincon.

Caesars’ interactive partner, 888, is even more involved. 888 is operational in Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware.

Unsurprisingly, Harrah’s/Caesars has been a strong proponent of legalizing online gaming in Pennsylvania. At a hearing in April of 2015 Harrah’s/Caesars sent David Satz, Vice President of Government Relations, in an effort to educate lawmakers on the benefits of legalizing online gambling for both the state and for the casino operators. Satz brought a unique perspective, as Caesars is operational in multiple states and can point to its experiences in New Jersey rather than hypothetical possibilities.

Pennsylvania has an active online gaming legislation effort and is likely to pass some sort of bill in the next year or two. However, a serious ETA is impossible at this point.

With Caesars Entertainment’s WSOP.com—who’s software is provided by 888—already available as the largest and second largest regulated online poker room in Nevada and New Jersey respectively, one can assume they will be among the first to launch another site in PA if/when an iGaming bill comes to pass.

There’s also the possibility that Pennsylvania could join the online poker compact between Nevada and Delaware. This would give a healthy boost to the smaller state’s player pool and revenue numbers.

Image credit: Usa-Pyon / Shutterstock.com

Steve Ruddock

Steve Ruddock

Steve covers nearly every angle of online poker in his job as a full-time freelance poker writer. His primary focus is the developing legal and legislative picture for regulated US online poker and gambling.