Now that the Hanson Report has come out, we start hearing the criticism. We have legislators saying the Meadowlands should not be sold and we should get VLTs in the Meadowlands. Sounds good. One problem, even if the assembly approved the bill unanimously, the Senate President has made it known a bill will never be posted for a vote. VLTs for all practical purposes are a non-starter. The state lacks the money to provide a subsidy to racing. I fear what we have here are politicians grandstanding for their local constituents.
This is not to say these proposals will get approved intact. There is a good chance the necessary legislation may go nowhere this year and alternate proposals may be offered. But what does that mean? Even if there is a stalemate this year, who is going to pay the NJSEA’s deficit next year to keep the lights on? If the deficit for next year can be addressed (the NJSEA must provide a balanced budget for 2011 by September 30), what kind of purses will there be with no purse supplement and VLT revenue? A harness meet at the Meadowlands next year (if even held) will be a dismal meet; as earlier stated, likely a Freehold North.
One of many distressing things I have seen in the report is the possibility of stealing even more business from racing. Not only does the report refuse to consider VLTs for the Meadowland, the report suggests continuing legal analysis to see if in-state Internet Gaming operating with a hub in Atlantic City is possible; another way to benefit casino interests at the sacrifice of racing.
A positive recommendation (there is one) in the report is municipalities will no longer be given the opportunity to veto an OTW facility just because they don’t want an OTW in their municipality. The recommendation proposed calls for proposed OTW sites be treated like any other commercial development. If zoning requirements are met, cities and towns would not be able to veto an OTW facility.
The report makes the assumption that Freehold Raceway remains open. Whether this is a realistic assumption without any secondary source of revenue for purses is debatable. Basically, there are four options being presented regarding standardbred racing which up to now has been held at the Meadowlands. You may read them in the report in detail but here is a summary:
Option 1 calls for the elimination of the Meadowlands harness meet with no standardbred racing anywhere but at Freehold which would continue to hold harness racing. In order to sustain a standardbred breeding industry in the state, a fund would be created for standardbred awards for owners and breeders that win races out of state.
Option 2 calls for a seventy day standardbred meet to be held at Monmouth Park. This proposal would result in two standardbred meets being conducted in the same region; there may be a problem with assigning race dates between Freehold and Monmouth Park. This proposal would call for adding lights at Monmouth Park as well as building a front paddock for harness racing. Under this proposal, thoroughbred racing would take precedence in racing dates; meaning the standardbred meet may need to occur in the winter months.
Option 3 in all realities is a temporary solution. The standardbred horsemen will be able to lease the Meadowlands for three years at a cost of $1 per year; being responsible for all costs including payments in lieu of taxes which currently are $2.5 million a year. The state would also allow the horsemen to buy an equity percentage in the Bayonne, NJ OTW facility to help fund purses. The state would not provide any funding so the meet would likely lack quality unless the horsemen built an OTW facility at the Meadowlands; in which case they may be able to afford a fifty day championship meet. At the end of three years, the lease would be terminated and the racetrack would be used for other purposes. The unspoken assumption is this would give horsemen time to implement option four.
Option 4 calls for a private organization to convert an existing standardbred farm with a mile track into a pari-mutuel facility with a 5,000 seat grandstand. This private group would be given an option to build an OTW at the Meadowlands to capture the North Jersey market. The problem with this proposal is any suitable training center is in Monmouth County where Freehold is located. We would have to expect a dog fight when it comes to obtaining race dates.
One thing is for certain. The Gaming and Racing Summit being held soon should be interesting with fireworks flying. While local officials in Atlantic County may not be happy with the idea of the state taking over part of Atlantic City, the gaming interests will be coming to the summit thinking this report has wonderful proposals. Thoroughbred horsemen will have some concerns, but the standardbred horsemen will be arriving at the summit with the most to learn.
Dean over at Pull the Pocket claims the apparent demise of the Meadowlands meet is the final result of racing depending on VLTs. Make no mistake, VLTs in Pennsylvania, New York and Delaware may have brought us to this point earlier, but attendance and wagering at the Meadowlands was declining even before the racinos popped up. The blame for the mess we now find us in can be attributed to the harness racing industry being content with the status quo. Heaven forbid we would have lowered takeout rates years ago; speed up the races; had the foresight to control their own signal by forming their own ADWs; been more sensitive to changing attitudes regarding animal welfare; found a way to raise the possibility of providing better payoffs on traditional wagers; not screamed bloody murder when assigned a position in the second tiers (I remember seeing sixteen horses in one race on the mile oval; treated gamblers fairly when the recall rule was changed; were not concerned with last minute odds changes). If each stakeholder group would have worked together, instead of worrying about their own parochial interests we may never have gotten to the point we needed to depend on VLTs.
You may be mad at the Hanson Commission; mad at Christie for what is being proposed. In reality, the industry should be mad at itself. We have met the enemy and it is us.