What happened over the past three days which brought the Meadowlands from the verge of death to possible renewal? Up to yesterday morning, I and many others were convinced it was all over for the Meadowlands but after a four hour session between Jeff Gural and Governor Christie, that all changed. So what happened:
No VLTs. Mr. Gural came to the meeting telling Christie that he is not looking for VLTs or any subsidy to keep the Meadowlands going. He felt the Meadowlands could keep profitable by just with the Meadowlands brand alive. Every other proposal up to now has been demanding of some type of subsidy. Here was something fresh, a person who felt standardbred racing can stand on its own.
Cynics, will say, sure. But aren't Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs racinos? What makes Gural think the Meadowlands could be supported without extended gaming? Once again, the Meadowlands brand. There is no handle at Tioga Downs or Vernon Downs to speak of; there is at the Meadowlands. Get rid of that big ugly grandstand (which I thought lacked character day one) which was probably the biggest overhead item and the number of employees needed to support that building and you are well on the way to solvency. If you had a Freehold-sized grandstand and a Meadowlands-type handle, what kind of money do you think the Pennwood group would be rolling in?
Gural attends to make racing fun again. I am sure the Governor saw some type of a video presentation of a Sunday afternoon of racing at Tioga Downs. Quite honestly, a day of racing at Tioga is entertainment for those who attend; it reminds me of a day at a minor league baseball game. Well, when was the last time racing was fun; entertainment? With the Tioga philosophy coming to the Meadowlands, people who have long abandoned the Meadowlands will be drawn back to the track, and it will be a valid entertainment destination for young families with children. Will these people be providing a $100 per capita in wagering? Absolutely not, but they will make racing fun again and wagering will increase and in all likelihood, when added to the simulcast total, it will make a decent contribution to the bottom line. When some of these fans become serious gamblers, they will join their fellow heavy hitters in front of their computers to wager, only to be replaced with the next generation of young families and those looking for entertainment.
If a lease can be established, I predict we will be seeing the model of harness racing in the United States in particular and perhaps North America. For those who have VLT revenue great, just remember those days will be coming to an end. Sooner or later those slot subsidies will be coming to an end and racing will have to make it on its own. By starting at the Meadowlands, the new model can be developed and then trickle-down to smaller racing facilities. I have no doubt there will be those with parochial interests who will hope Gural and his group fails but they better change their tune. Retrenchment in harness racing is coming. If Gural succeeds it will be a resizing of the industry. If Gural walks away or fails, the retrenchment will be more like a plague.
As for Tioga Downs fans, there is a lot to be excited here. Don't be surprised assuming a lease is achieved that the quality of your racing improves with more Meadowlands horses and drivers taking up residence at the Nichols facility. I believe it is only a matter of time before a strong racing program between the two ovals is developed making it enticing for Meadowlands-caliber horses to make the trip north after the Meadowlands closes it's winter meet.
Why did it take so long for Gural to get involved; reports indicate it was not before Wednesday before he got involved. Up to that time, the SBOANJ kept talking about the economic contribution horse racing brought the state downstream. They finally realized the Governor was not interested in that, but just the state budget. Also, the SBOANJ may have been hesitant until the last minute to bring Mr. Grual in as it will result in harness racing going back to the days prior to year round racing at one track; no longer being able to set up home from January through August or all year at one place and have regular lives like everyone else. With Mr. Gural's proposal of winter racing, one can assume after January-March, horsemen will have to hit the road, unless they will be racing at Freehold. Sure, there will be a yet undefined Championship meet at the Meadowlands, but that will be for the highest quality of horses and is not yet defined as in length. Will it be a two month meeting or will it be like the three week fall meet at Keenland? Involving Gural and his team also meant giving up on the dream of obtaining VLT revenue down the road. Harness racing will have to live on what it will produce betting-wise, another likelihood of reduced racing days.
Let's hope the numbers work. Harness racing may be on the edge of a brave new world.