In today's HRU, a reader criticizes Jeff Gural's operation of the Meadowlands, claiming he has operated the facility improperly which has resulted in the current situation where the scythe is about to lay waste to the stakes calendar due to the impending loss of the gaming referendum.
The writer makes some good points, but is way off on others. For example, considering the Meadowlands inability to compete against tracks with slot revenue, the decision to compete against them continues to have me shake my head. Two days a week meets are worthless.
Instead of racing from January through the first week of August, the Meadowlands should be racing during the winter when many of the area tracks are closed and the horse supply would be at its maximum. Racing December (possibly November) through mid-March four or five days a week and then run a three days a week boutique meet for higher caliber horses for the four weeks leading up to the Hambletonian.
Where the writer is definitely wrong is his criticizing Jeff Gural for his loyalty to the local (NJ) horsemen. In fact, it is Gural's duty to support the local horsemen. One of the reasons racetracks are allowed to operate by the state is to support and promote New Jersey breeders and the local horsemen. This is why there is a sire stakes program and races dedicated to New Jersey Owned and Sired horses. The local horsemen and horses are the ones which support any state's racing program so one must work with them to put on the best possible program. With New Jersey's breeding program being decimated, it is clear the caliber of the local product is not what it once was, but he has to work with the stock available. Were the Meadowlands to have a boutique meet, where the top stables come in to compete, then the majority of local horsemen would be on the outside looking in; enough of a sacrifice for them to make.
Should it be Gural's responsibility to make the Meadowlands the mecca of harness racing once again? Some may like to think so, but no, it isn't his responsibility to do so. Management's responsibility is to put on the most competitive product it can while making a profit or at worse, breaking even. If the Meadowlands were to once again have strong meets, then it can have meets of national importance, after all a rising tide lifts all ships.
The truth is the Meadowlands purse account is at a deficit, paying out more than it should. With gaming not coming to the Meadowlands, the time has come to balance the books. The drop of stakes races and yes, the drop in purses is necessary to bring the purse account into balance. If anything, Gural should have dropped these stakes races and cut purses sooner.
You may ask how could the Meadowlands be in such dire straits being they have the largest handles in the United States? Because handle means little. Money bet on track matters, there traditional splits of the takeout takes place adding money to the purse account as well as the track's bottom line. When 90% of your handle comes from wagering on your signal, you are in trouble. For every million dollars bet elsewhere on the Meadowlands, track management and the purse account earns $15,000 each, enough money to pay for the purses of maybe two or three races each night. Quite honestly, the track does better on each dollar wagered via exchange wagering; at least the horsemen and track get double the fee on this new form of wagering which doesn't even go through the traditional pools.
If anything, slot tracks should step up and become the new mecca as tracks who rely on wagering only are not able to support the national industry. The question should be why doesn't Yonkers Raceway have a more robust stakes program? Why are tracks like Harrah's Philadelphia and their horsemen wasting $100,000 on a driving championship for local horsemen when that money could be used to contribute to fund another stakes race? How many stakes races does The Meadows have besides PA-sired races? Of course, tracks alone can't decide on having stakes races; horsemen need to agree to the portion of the purse account which may be used for stakes.
The sad truth is under the current pricing model of racing, no track without slots can compete against slot tracks for horses. The only thing they can do is hunker down and pay the purses it can afford and seek the best horses available to compete for those purses and hope they can hold on. If the breeders and horsemen who compete on the national stage need a stronger stakes program, they shouldn't be looking to Gural to provide them the races they need, they need to be looking to slot tracks to pick up the pieces (stakes races) being dropped by the Meadowlands. Let's see how many of these slot tracks will be stepping up; I suspect we will be disappointed.