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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Would We Have Been Better off Without the Meadowlands?

Before I begin, let me state right now, that the survival of the Meadowlands is important to the standardbred industry.  While the standardbred industry would survive without the Meadowlands (sorry, doomsayers), the impact would be severe with an accelerated retraction in breeding and racetracks.  The impact on the equine industry in New Jersey would be severe (not that Governor Christie is overly concerned with that). 

But let's go back in time before 1976, when the Meadowlands opened and speculate what the industry would be looking like.  In some ways, not as bad as it is now as the Meadowlands changed several fundamentals of racing.

  1. The half mile track would still be king.  Without the Meadowlands being built, most people would still be exposed to racing on the 1/2 mile and  5/8 mile tracks.  The Meadowlands showed people what racing was like on the mile track.  Being the majority of our raceways are smaller than the mile track, gamblers would be more accepting of the smaller ovals.  It just was the way it was.
  2. The creation of the Meadowlands and its lucrative purses made race horses more of a commodity.  Prior to the the Meadowlands, your horses tended to race year in year out.  Each year, you could be sure Mickey Rodney would be competing on the New York circuit, basically in the same class.  Sportsmanship went out and investors came in (tax laws contributed to this).  Once the Meadowlands came into existence, many more horses did not last more than a season or a horse would be racing in the top conditioned classes one year and be racing at a B track the following year in much lower classes.  People talk about how the horses at Yonkers are not worth the claiming tags they race for now, but they never questioned claiming races for $100,000 and up at the Meadowlands?
  3. The trainer/driver would be alive and well.  Since the sport would not be full of the Wall Street types that looked at a horse as a tool to make profits, owners would be looking out at the big picture and be content letting the trainer driver the horse so it would not be gutted out by a catch driver.  With all due respect, horses would be driven by horsemen and not by some of the hacks out there who have no qualm about leaving a trainer with a lame horse.
  4. Horsemanship would be in and with less medication.  With purses lower, owners would be more willing to let a horse miss a week to recover.  With the Meadowlands open, Dr. Feelgood became a valued member of the training team.  
  5. There would be no rent a horse; the process of claiming a horse for one week and losing them the following week.  Rent a horse has tended to hurt the overall health of the horse as owners would not be looking long term but at the following week.
  6. More of the older horses would continue to race.  While there have always been syndications, it was restricted to the best horses while the others would continue to race.  Remember the weekly FFAs?  Those are a rare occurrence today, replaced by 'Opens'.  Don't confuse the two classes.  There is a big difference between the two classes.  In addition, horses would be seen at various tracks whereas now the best horses take up residence at the Meadowlands and hardly leave
  7. The expense of maintaining a horse would be much less than it is now.  Making horse ownership easier.
  8. The Meadowlands became the proverbial golden calf.  All the industry did was focus on the Meadowlands and ignored other tracks.  Had to get the Hambletonian to the Meadowlands; all the big races occurred in the metropolitan area for ratings.  The sport was changed to accommodate Madison Ave.  Heat racing went out of favor.  Breeding changed from endurance to speed to accommodate the Meadowlands.
  9. Lastly, the Meadowlands allowed the industry to take its eye off the ball.  The sport artificially grew too fast at a rate which could not be sustained.  As long as the Meadowlands did well, it didn't really matter what happened at the Jackson Raceways, Brandywines or even Balmoral.  The sport was content being a New York-centric market, practically abandoning California and other markets for the benefit of the Meadowlands.  Yes, those that raced at the Big M prospered while we ignored the warning signs of tracks closing.  Look at Iowa.  We had harness racing at Prairie Meadows and after this year Iowa horsemen are out of luck.  Canterbury Downs dropped the standardbreds.   Did anyone care what happened at the smaller tracks?  I suggest not.  Issues which needed to be addressed were ignored or not treated with the urgency needed because the Meadowlands prospered.  Now that the Meadowlands is failing or running into severe problems, all those problems the industry had but ignored are coming back to bite us in the proverbial butt.  If we addressed the problems then they may have been manageable, now we have a potential crisis on our hands with all the issues which were ignored over the years.
The Meadowlands has (and hopefully) will continue to be a factor in the sport; allowing the industry to fix its problems.  However, i can't help but think in the long run we would have been better off if the Meadowlands never came into existence.

Your thoughts?


Anonymous said...

If the Meadowlands never existed, the Hambletonian may have never left DuQuoin, the Midwest Grand Circuit swing might still be alive and well, and heat racing may not have fallen out of favor. On the other hand considering the recession/depression we are now in and the greediness and short sightedness of the Illinois horsemen maybe Illinois racing would still be dead.

Bob said...

Your latest post is very well put…..

Pacingguy said...

Anon, no doubt the current economic downturn may have hurt racing in Illinois and elsewhere, but the fact is without the 'mecca' of harness racing making everyone feel good despite the fundamental problems underneath, the sport may have been better able to respond to the issues it buried its head in the sand about.

The_Knight_Sky said...

I miss those Free-For-Alls.

Guts, Stonebridge Skipper, Falcon Seelster and horses of that ilk were clearly a cut above the open competitors.

They were always the stars of the stars of the racing card. And you couldn't help but get attached to them seeing them race week after week.

That's clearly not the case today as the big guns are scattered all over the map.

Phil J. said...

I agree with most of what you write. It is well stated and mostly valid.

#3 concerns me a bit though. At what point do you slide down the slippery slope of "not trying" as oppose to "gutting". This perception runs rampant even given the status quo. Whether true or not, folks pin poor handicapping or unfortunate luck on "not trying" pretty often as it is. This situation/perception may be made worse with the trainer/driver. Those of us who follow the sport even remotely close, know that it happens. Drivers have admitted in in post race interviews ( Gingras on Darlins Delight a few years ago ). That isn't to say I think every horse should be gutted or even asked to leave from the 10 hole off a 4 month lay off all the time. But I do think more trainer/drivers would lend itself to a lot more questions regarding intent.

Scott Jeffreys said...

Dear Pacingguy : Your piece on the "What if the Meadowlands never happened?" was a brilliant and fresh look at harness racing's current state.

When the Meadowlands relegated the Roosevelt/Yonkers circuit to second-class status, New York media coverage (Newsday and others) was lost on a day-in, day-out basis. Once the visibility was no longer in black-and-white on a daily basis, the harness racing game continued to lose its fan base.

If the 5/8ths oval was the "big track", Tioga would be a big time player and we likely would have had someone looking to run Parr/Suffolk Meadows on their 5/8ths oval.

What if ... indeed.

Sincerely, Scott

Pacingguy said...


I do understand your concern about 'gutting'. I think most people, except sadists would have a problem with gutting. Again, there is a difference between trying hard and ripping the lungs out of a horse in some type of suicide move even if it pays off but the horse is no good for months if not forever.

Yes, I understand the concern about the trainer/driver possibly saving a horse too much. Good strong judging and perhaps re-arranging the financial incentives a trainer/driver gets can address that.

Pacingguy said...


Let's not kid yourself, the loss of media interest in NY may have happened anyway. Atlantic City and the lotteries would have still showed up. The whole point is the industry may not have been as complacent while the fat cats thrived at the Meadowlands and the peasants elsewhere were left to eat cake.