With the deadline for a constitutional amendment passed, it is clear no VLTs are coming to the Meadowlands in 2011. Assuming the subsidy for racing is not renewed, it is clear the Meadowlands and Freehold will be unable to offer as many racing dates next year and have any type of quality meet. What kind of meets offered depends on the Entertainment, Sports, and Gaming Commission’s recommendations. A recommendation for VLTs at the Meadowlands may result in meets similar to this year’s schedule with an agreement that horsemen will accept paltry purses for 2011with guarantees that those supporting the Meadowlands and Freehold in 2011 will be given preferential treatment once the slots are installed. A report opposing VLTs would likely result in vastly different race meets.
One thing is certain. Racing is not going to disappear in New Jersey regardless of the decision; certainly not overnight. The Meadowlands, with a reduced race schedule, should still be able to offer purses exceeding some of the smaller tracks which offer VLTs. That being said, Yonkers, Saratoga, Pocono Downs, Chester Downs, Dover Downs, and Harrington Raceway will be able to offer purses exceeding the Meadowlands for overnight events. However, the Meadowlands has something these tracks will not be able to offer; a mile oval. With all the emphasis on being able to develop racing stock which can compete at the Meadowlands, we have horses that are unable to navigate the smaller ovals. So for at least a few years, we will have horses whose only option will be to continue racing at the Meadowlands regardless of the purse structure.
With the Monmouth Park Elite meet being a success, I believe there will be some attempt to emulate it (though without a purse supplement for next year, they will have a hard time duplicating their success). For one thing, on track attendance at Monmouth is helped by being in a tourist region (the Jersey shore); something which is missing in East Rutherford. Monmouth Park is in many ways like Saratoga Racetrack; a facility that attracts people who attend for the atmosphere and experience whereas the Meadowlands physical plant has all the charm of, well, an industrial park.
Let’s look at one possibility in the worst case scenario (no slots, no subsidy). This assumes the decision is made to keep the Meadowlands open. If the Meadowlands is closed, I would envision something similar to this proposal would be implemented wherever the Meadowlands harness meet was moved to.
The Meadowlands would have a winter meet which will race Thursday-Saturday in the winter when many of the tracks in the Northeast are shuttered for the season, probably from January through March. The winter early and late closing series would be reduced by eliminating a number of the events. In addition, they will be a no-frills fall meet where they will race Fridays and Saturdays during November and December which will give preference to New Jersey sired and bred horses. Freehold Raceway will likely race April-June three days a week and September through October two days a week, forfeiting most of their remaining stakes program, but offering a few late closing events for state owned or sired horses and New Jersey Sires Stakes.
From Memorial Day through Labor Day, the Meadowlands will offer their own Elite meet racing Thursday through Saturday. The stakes schedule would be pared. Almost certain would be cancelling the stakes held during the first week of the Grand Circuit; those races previously held at Historic Track. Some of the other stakes would have their added money reduced, but the Hambletonian would remain at least through the end of the current contract. Overnight purses would be higher when compared to the winter and fall meets.
As a side note, let me state up front I am not privy to any inside information. I can’t help but think moving the harness meet to Atlantic City Race Course might make sense if it guarantees a purse supplement from Atlantic City casino interests. The casino industry can claim they are giving a supplement to promote the greater Atlantic City area as a tourist destination and the horsemen would benefit from higher purses and the survival of most added money events. Of course, the agreement would have to include thoroughbred interests but they should be agreeable if it helps sustain the purse structure at Monmouth Park. With the vast majority of wagering occurring off track, the live attendance at Atlantic City Race Course is less important than the acceptance of the racing product by those wagering off-track. If not the entire harness racing calendar, perhaps a subsidy for a summer meet at Atlantic City could be arranged? It is worth exploring.