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Friday, April 29, 2011

Not Quite Soup but Looking Good - Now What?

Well, the elusive lease has not been finalized due to the issue of revenue sharing between the thoroughbreds and standadrbreds, but it appears the two sides are close enough that the state is allowing the Meadowlands to race through the rest of this month to clean up the revenue sharing and other minor issues.  As before, the horsemen are on the hook for any shortfalls which may occur if  a lease is not finalized.

I must confess, I have caused a bit of a firestorm when I claimed I felt the thoroughbred horsemen are owed no special revenue privileges for thoroughbred racing conducted out of state where few, if any NJ thoroughbred horsemen participate, the same way I would feel regarding the Meadowlands horsemen trying to claim special revenue privileges from harness racing at Cal Expo.    It further irks me when the standardbred industry accepts the fact they are going to have to do it on their own yet the thoroughbred industry has illusions of grander picking off the standardbreds' proverbial pockets.  A proposal I made earlier this year I feel would be a compromise to allow the thoroughbred horsemen a period of time to improve their product and get special financial incentives for a limited time.  However, being the Meadowlands is racing next Friday, I suspect cooler heads are prevailing and a reasonable solution is being developed.

Just a word of thanks to my thoroughbred readers who have been supportive of my comments.  This is not to say they agree with my position fully, but they feel I did not cross the line.  For those unfamiliar, Freehold Raceway is a private racetrack and while there is a connection between the two tracks, it is only in that a Meadowlands trainer who has a $4,000 claimer has a place to race a horse.  Simulcasting revenue between the two tracks are not shared; meaning what goes to the purse account at Freehold stays there and what goes into the purse account at the Meadowlands stays there and is not shared so basically it is two different classes of horse owners and trainers (for the most part)..

Despite a lease not being signed, a  collective sigh of relief is heard as the patient appears to have been saved. The Meadowlands, left on its deathbed only a year ago, and near death two weeks ago has been resuscitated by the Jeff Gural-led group. Sure there has been a lot of pain and sacrifice by employees and horsemen, some who admittedly were totally innocent in the decline of the Meadowlands. But it is a new day. Barring some highly unlikely curve balls, the patient has risen from his death bed, a new management team will be in place, and we’ll likely say good bye to some old friends and get on with what we do best, racing.

And that is what I am scared about. Not as much about the new team which will be stepping in to run the Meadowlands, the future there appears to be bright. No doubt Jason Settlemoir (and fellow members of the Tioga/Vernon team) will be coming down to New Jersey at least on a part time basis to consult on the running of the Meadowlands and new ideas will be tried at the Meadowlands with some ideas working while others will not. With the new style of management coming to the Meadowlands, not only can the Meadowlands be revived, the industry has a living laboratory which has the potential of developing a new model for running a racetrack and stabilize or dare I say, regenerate the sport?

My fear is primarily of the horsemen. How many of them are like the chain smoker who stops smoking when they find a spot on their lungs and promise never to smoke again, only to resume once the spot turns out to be nothing? When the Meadowlands was threatened with closing, they did the right thing by agreeing to a greatly reduced schedule to accommodate the lack of subsidies of any kind. But now that the situation is stabilized, I fear the urge for cigarettes will return. In this case, the cigarettes are called racinos.

As soon as the ink is dried on the lease, the campaign for a casino will begin anew. Would the operators of the Meadowlands welcome them?  Sure but unlike the horsemen they realize they may never come. The horsemen on the other hand, will be focused on casinos, getting one at the Meadowlands and getting their share and while doing this, they will take the attitude of holding on until Christie’s Atlantic City gamble fails, stifling any thoughts of making the necessary changes to make the racing product desirable.

Do I think casinos are coming to North Jersey? Eventually yes, but no time soon. If Governor Christie wins re-election, the soonest slots may come is 2018. If the Governor leaves or changes his mind, but no change is made in the Senate Leadership, you have a Senate President who refuses to post a bill allowing the expansion of casino gambling. And let me ask this question, should a casino(s) come to North Jersey; are you so sure it will be coming to the Meadowlands? What makes you think a casino will not be placed in more economically depressed area(s) such as Newark or Bayonne; close enough to New York, but in cities who could use the economic engine casinos would bring. Bergen County would not be considered a country with a need for a big economic engine at this time so even if those casinos come there is no assurance it will be at the Meadowlands with horse racing getting their share. That’s the mystery of politics, as much as you think you know how things will go, you may surprised when you see the final legislation.

What horsemen and management need to do is focus on rebuilding a sport. We know from experience Gural's racetrack management is committed in reshaping the way business is done in horse racing to attract new customers and more wagering. What about the horsemen? Are they willing to invest in accepting a reduction in takeouts? Sure, guaranteed Pick 4s will attract interest from seasoned gamblers, but what will it do for the person who doesn’t even know you exist? Offering 15% Superfectas yet offer win wagers with higher takeouts is not the way to attract new customers. Getting out in the community and building good will is the way to get people to come to the track as an afternoon or evening of family entertainment. Management can’t do it alone; it needs the cooperation of the horsemen.

Earlier I mentioned how the Meadowlands is now a laboratory for harness racing. Successes at the Meadowlands may be transferable and used to attract interest at smaller, less stable tracks; some with casinos who down the road may be without their crutch.

The potential for the Meadowlands is great. Horsemen must be progressive and work with management. Exchange wagering and new wagers are on the horizon, but without integrity, these new wagers are destined for failure. It may not be until January, 2013 when the new grandstand opens but with the cooperation of the horsemen, it is possible harness racing in New Jersey once again leads harness racing to a new golden age. Or if we fall back to our old ways, we may find ourselves squandering our last chance.

Forget about casinos and worry about fixing the racing product. Everything else will work itself out.

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