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Friday, May 13, 2011

A New Era Begins

With news late last night that an agreement has been reached on a lease for both the Meadowlands and Monmouth Park, horse racing in New Jersey; harness racing in particular, is about to enter a new era. That noise you heard last night was the collective sigh of relief which came from Columbus, Ohio, all eighteen harness racing states, and in particular the training farms in New Jersey and in East Rutherford. No, the Meadowlands will not vault overnight into prominence in the harness world, but clearly the foundation has been stabilized by the taking over of racing operations as of June 1 by Jeff Gural and his young, exciting, and innovative team. The harness racing meltdown has been stopped and the road to rebuilding will begin.

For the record, it must be said that as a formality, the Monmouth Park horsemen’s group must approve the agreement with Mr. Bailey for the leases to take effect. Concerned about the distribution of simulcasting revenue from the Meadowlands which remains as state law indicates possibly derailing the thoroughbred group’s approval? Don’t worry about it.. As with the teller’s union, the realization will, if not already has, sunk in that a veto of the agreed upon lease will kill racing at Monmouth Park; the Governor will not revisit horse racing with state budget negotiations beginning in earnest. To put it in other words, from the state’s perspective, this is their best and final proposal.

Make no mistake, with the Gural team operating the Meadowlands, expect some changes of national impact. One of the first changes may come with our three year old stars racing at least through a four year old campaign. As many of you may recall, for a long time Jeff Gural has been calling for stakes races where entry is limited to the off-spring of stallions who don’t enter the stallion barn until the age of five unless there was an injury in an effort to keep the stars on the track. The industry has been resistant to this concept but with the lucrative stakes program at the Vernon, Tioga, and now the Meadowlands, a large block of stakes races may have their conditions modified to restrict the fields to off-spring of stallions who enter stud service no sooner than the age of five, thus de facto forcing three year olds to race a four year old campaign.  With regards to Jeff Gural's plans for this year, click here as interviewed Mr. Gural.

I would like to now repeat part of an earlier blog entry I had written which may have seemed premature at the time and thus passed over. Now that the Meadowlands is indeed saved, it is important that I repeat these comments (with a few words altered):

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. While the Gural-led team will be running the Meadowlands as of June 1, meaning paying the bills, realistically there will be little change this year as the new ownership will not likely be licensed until the current meet has concluded, meaning the NJSEA will run the track for the new ownership group. Once the new management team is in place, we will 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 which 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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