How Pocono Downs became known as Mohegan Sun

Northeast Pennsylvania had never seen anything like Pocono Downs when it opened on July 15, 1965. The red clay surface on the 5/8-mile track was lightning fast and the new plant attracted the best trotters and pacers in the country. It was the first time major league sports entertainment was presented in the Pocono Mountains and the fans responded. The opening night turnout was a capacity 12,000 and no night during the inaugural 50-race meet ever saw less than 5,000 race fans.

Pocono Downs was a family business from the start. James Durkin, who gave up a career as a state trooper in favor of coal and oil investing in Wilkes Barre, was the main money man in the $7 million venture. His wife Anna Jean took care of decorating the racing facility, right down to the blue and gold color scheme.

The 1970s, however, brought less happy times. On the track Pocono Downs horsemen became involved in a widespread race-fixing scheme. Behind the scenes there were indictments over the propriety of the sale of the track by the Durkins and ames Durkins became entwined in scandals involving Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters.

Mired in bankruptcy, Pocono Downs was purchased for $2.5 million in 1983 by Joseph B. Banks, a construction company entrepreneur who owned a fitness club and roller skating rink nearby.

Banks installed a new lighting system, upgraded the track surface and rebuilt the upper grandstand. Under his guidance Pocono Downs returned to being the number one entertainment facility in Northeast Pennsylvania. After his death in 1996 at the age of 64 the operation was sold to Penn National Gaming for $47 million.

In 2005, armed with one of Pennsylvania’s 14 coveted new gaming licenses, Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority purchased Pocono Downs and its off-track wagering network for $280 million.

The next year Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs became the first of Pennsylvania’s slot parlors to open. Millions more dollars were spent for another round of improvements at the racetrack, including an entire new paddock area. Mohegan has remained committed to presenting prime time racing with such feature races as the Pennsylvania Sires Stakes, the Max Hempt Memorial Pace, the James Lynch Memorial Pace, and the Reynolds Stakes.

In 2013 it hosted trotting’s biggest weekend of racing, the Breeders Crown, and 18 world records were tied or broken in two days of racing.

Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs’ Target Market

Nestled just off I-81 between Wilkes Barre and Scranton, Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs is proud of its tradition of providing first-rate entertainment to northeast Pennsylvanians for almost half a century but it also touts its easy accessibility to New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Delaware.

The racino aims straight at the middle market with local bands playing every weekend; when name entertainers appear they tend to be reality show stars.

Right in the middle of the pack

Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs is also squarely in the middle rank of Pennsylvania casinos in terms of gaming capacity and revenue.

Its 84 table games and 2332 slot machines generate a little more than $250 million annually on the 82,000-square foot gaming floor.

Mohegan’s other properties

In the 1970’s the State of Minnesota attempted to levy property taxes on residents of the Chippewa reservation. The tax plan precipitated a legal battle that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court which ruled that states not only had no right to tax residents of Indian reservations they had no authority to meddle in Indian activities on the reservations at all. This led to the proliferation of small stakes bingo parlors operated by many tribes.

In 1988 the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed that opened the doors to full-scale casinos on Indian lands. A quarter-century later America was awash in 460 gambling operations controlled by 240 tribes.

The Mohegan Tribe opened their casino in 1996 on its 507-acre reservation in south-central Connecticut. Mohegan Sun, that takes up 185 acres of those 507, is now the second largest casino in the United States with 6,500 slot machines and 180 table games.

Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs was the Tribal Gaming Authority’s first acquisition outside the reservation. Since then, Mohegan has explored expansion into New York’s Catskill Mountains and Massachusetts where it is proposing to take over Suffolk Downs near Boston.

In 2012 the tribe assumed the management of Resorts Casino Hotel, the casino that launched Atlantic City gaming in 1978.

Mohegan Sun’s live and online poker

The non-smoking poker room at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs seats players at 18 tables. There are flat screen televisions and a bar to enjoy when the cards are running cold.

Tournaments are conducted daily including No Limit Texas Hold’Em and knockout bounty events. Mohegan Sun also deals out a free online poker site with regular games of Texas Hold ‘Em, Omaha Hi-Lo.

With the prospect of regulated online gambling in some form coming to Pennsylvania in the near future, the Mohegan is in an optimal position by already operating their own online poker site. They would unquestionably be an attractive partner for foreign operators or could end up choosing to fight it out solo, which would be much tougher.

More than meets the eye

Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs breaks the run-of-the-mill racino mold with a hotel and retail shops. For sports fans, in addition to the live harness action, just down the road is the 8,300-seat Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza that is home to the American Hockey League’s Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins.

Mohegan Sun purchased the naming rights of the 11-year old entertainment center in 2010; it does not participate actively in its management.

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.