Editor's Note: If you are looking for my fearless selections for Hambletonian Day, click here.
The New York Times has run a profile on Jeff Gural. Reading this article, you will see why he is divisive. Some see him as harness racing's hope for survival while others in the industry dislike him.
Those who have read this blog for any length of time know how I view him. There are far too many in the industry who resist change, put their hands up in the air and say "Save me slots" and spend their time seeking to get slots or hold on to what slot revenue they are getting. Others feel the situation is hopeless and are just trying to hold on until retirement.
Then there is Gural. The man has all the money he needs and more. Sure, he is seeking slots at the Meadowlands, but he happily puts slot money into racing while other slot operators are just waiting to pull the plug on racing. People claim he only wanted the Meadowlands so he could get a casino. Well, while he invests in racing (breeding farms, horse ownership, and race tracks), is he running a charity? There is nothing wrong with wanting a source of income which keeps the balance sheet in the black. Besides, who else was coming to the rescue of the Meadowlands to keep it from closing?
To the chagrin of horsemen he realizes racing 365 days a year is an anarchism; shorter race meets makes sense; the demand for longer meets is not there and it allows purses to be higher instead of racing for paltry purses during longer meets. You will hear people like Joe Faraldo talk about how many days were cut from Vernon Downs' schedule when you consider the pre-Gural days at Vernon. Do you think horsemen there would like to race for purses half the current value? Some do because they can bill owners for keeping their horses in training; all that will do is cause owners to go broke quicker and leave the sport.
He realizes stakes races are necessary. Yes, overnight racing is the backbone of any racetrack but without stakes races there is no interest in yearlings and without yearlings there is no breeding and the industry will have no horses.
One mile racing, while it will remain the standard of the industry, can not be the only type of racing we present. We need to shake up the product, odd distance racing, more betting interests, and even racing under saddle which is why Gural is a big supporter of the effort to introduce RUS and tries different things to vary the product. So while there are people wondering why $32,000 is being spent on a RUS race on Hambletonian Day, Gural supports it, realizing what some people consider a novelty may actually be the key to get new people interested in standardbred racing.
Look at the requirement for equine start to races at four; we now see some of the best FFA racing we have seen in years. Yes, it keeps stallion owners from cashing in a year earlier than they can now but it's a necessary cost. Everyone must sacrifice if you want the sport to survive.
Gural is a maverick when it comes to racetrack operators. Does every idea he tries work? Of course not, but even Thomas Edison had failures. Does he go to far when he criticizes certain drivers for leaving the Meadowlands? Yes. The fact is Gural tries. How many people can we say do?