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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The New Jersey Thoroughbred Response

We have been discussing how the standardbred industry in New Jersey has been responding to the Hanson Report and Governor Christie’s proclamations that horse racing must stand on its own. How are our thoroughbred cousins responding to the threat that Monmouth Park needs to be privatized and there be no subsidies?

Surprisingly well.

In the Paulick Report, Ray Paulick interviews trainer John Forbes, President of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association (NJTHA) to get his feelings regarding the challenges facing thoroughbred racing. The message the thoroughbred industry is presenting is much different from the standardbred camp; a message of calmness and moving forward. Granted, the thoroughbred industry is not facing the immediate closure of their racetrack like the harness industry is facing with the Meadowlands (which I doubt will happen next year), but make no mistake; they too are facing the task of going it alone and being self-sufficient. Why the difference in attitudes?

The thoroughbred industry is proactive, harness racing is reactive. There lies the problem which has been hampering harness racing for a long time. Two years ago, then President of the NJTHA, Dennis Drazin, realized the casino subsidy was drying up. They realized the casino industry wanted horse racing out of the state if they could do it. Two years ago, the NJTHA leadership was starting to make plans for the Elite Meet at Monmouth Park. As Paulick reports,

The customer had spoken and we weren’t doing what the customer wants. Dennis said customers want bigger fields and better quality, and if we don’t supply that, something’s wrong with us—not the customer.

The runners get it. Their plan is to have the same type of meet next year, hopefully finding additional funding to keep the purses higher.

What did harness racing do? The same old thing. Since VLTs came to Pennsylvania and New York, there was no way the Meadowlands could continue to run long meets and outbid the surrounding racinos purse-wise. But instead of significantly shortening the Meadowlands race meets to be able to offer purses which could compete, things continued on as normal. Freehold Raceway, with an altered schedule, continues to race too many days resulting in cheap races which no one wants to wager on. But as long as horsemen are collecting those purse checks, the status quo has been fine; empty grandstand and all. Now that their livelihood is being threatened, the industry is reacting.

The problem is not just in New Jersey, but other states as well, most notably Illinois where the desire of being able to race year round is paramount and has resulted in a $1,800 purse for the bottom classes at Balmoral and Maywood. The attitude continues being “It is not what the customer wants, it is what the horsemen want”; the ability to race in one location all year long regardless of how low the purses get. If horsemen in Illinois were willing to race a shorter meet and be willing to travel the rest of the year, we would not be in the situation where the Meadowlands is the lynch pin for which the national harness industry depends on. If horsemen finally start worrying about what the customer wants, shorter quality meets, harness racing can become stronger in all the states it exists in and possibly even expand. For those horsemen who race on slot money, they better start worrying about what their customers want as well as the day will come when the slot spigot is turned off.

For those horsemen who say it is the track’s responsibility, it is important to note the thoroughbred horsemen came to Monmouth Park management and said they were racing too many days. You can’t leave it to the tracks to solve the problems; especially in states where they make their money on alternative gaming. It is up to the horsemen to take the lead.

So what do the thoroughbred leaders in New Jersey think about the future of horse racing?

There’s still some soul in racing, and we lose some of that soul at tracks when there’s no one there. I refuse to believe there’s not a renaissance in the sport that we can hope for or nurture.

Every standardbred horsemen that feels this is not the case should step aside and let those who feel this way lead the way. Maybe then, we will become an industry which is proactive instead of reactive.

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