Is the Meadowlands Meet a Sign of Impending Harness Racing Apocalypse?

Meadowlands2The Meadowlands had 91 days of racing last year; in 2018, it will have 90. On the surface, that looks about the same, but there have been some changes. Gone, for the most part, are three-day racing weeks, but so too are one-day racing weeks.

Like many, I wish The Big M would race more, but given the circumstances, 90 dates is better than zero and the good thing is there’s live racing in 11 of the 12 months. As per custom, the track will be dark from the Sunday after the Hambletonian until October.

Some call this the boutique style of racing — more weeks, less days.  Saratoga on the thoroughbred side is a good example of this.  Saratoga races 40 times over seven weeks. In 2018, The Meadowlands will race 90 times over 44 weeks.

There is nothing worse than one-day racing weeks.  It does nothing for continuity and, in many ways, turns bettors off.  The Big M handles plenty of money, but racing on just Saturdays simply isn’t good for a sport that needs a marquee track like the Meadowlands.  Next year, the track will race Fridays and Saturdays most weeks with some Thursday thru Saturday cards included in December. All this comes at an interesting time for Standardbred racing.

Last week, Freehold Raceway suspended Thursday racing due to lack of entries and if you add in the Meadowlands dilemma, harness racing in New Jersey appears to be in a little bit of peril, which is not good for the industry.  Harness racing has bigger purses than ever before, but for the sport to survive long-term, we need the grinders — the day-to-day action that creates handle and, of course, payoffs to the bettors.

The Meadowlands will get their $2 million handle on Saturday night, but that only gives the player 12 to 14 chances to make money.  Again, is this good for the sport?  Yonkers races five times per week and, like the track or not, it gives the player something to study, analyze and, most importantly, bet on.

Saratoga races four times per week, giving players at least 44 to 48 chances to make some money by wagering on actual races. It doesn’t make sense for the sport to have higher purses and less racing days.  Harness racing requires players to study the tracks and make informed decisions.  It’s rare for a Meadowlands player to just look at the Yonkers program and bet there.  Unlike thoroughbred players, most harness bettors don’t shift from track to track over a betting day.  Monticello races four times per week over 12 months and, for a track that offers very small purses, does a decent handle.

The reason: consistency.

(Photo via www.darkecountyfair.com)

(Photo via www.darkecountyfair.com)

On Nov. 9, Plainridge Park submitted its 2018 racing calendar to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.  It’s asking for 100 racing days; in 2017, it had 125 dates. And while I’m sure there will be increased purses over the 100-day proposed meet, a loss of 25 dates is significant.

Yes, the track might make more money by racing less (I’m sure track officials have done the math), but racing less hurts the bettors and those who make their living at the track.  If its 100 days in 2018, will it be 90 in 2019 and then 85 in 2020? This is a slippery slope for sure.

The commission, of course, can deny this and require Plainridge to race more.  In New York, Finger Lakes (a thoroughbred track) wanted to race less in 2017, but the New York State Gaming Commission and Governor Andrew Cuomo made them race more. More racing means more in taxes for the state (at least in theory).

New Jersey just elected a Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, to replace the outgoing Chris Christie, who was never a big ally of harness racing in the Garden State. Murphy has said he supports the industry and did, in fact, make visits to the Big M over the summer. Was that merely to campaign, or does it indicate a genuine interest in making sure harness racing prospers in the state?

Everybody knows that New Jersey harness racing does not benefit from casino/slots revenue like its neighboring states do.  We also know that the Atlantic City lobby is strong and fights hard to protect its interests.  In 2016, a proposition to add a casino in Northern New Jersey (likely the Meadowlands) was defeated soundly by Garden State voters.  For now, the harness racing industry has to make do without the casino revenue that helps New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Delaware and Maryland.  The impact is clear — we see horsemen race at Yonkers, Pocono and even Saratoga where there is more money to be made.

There are many who believe that no industry should have to rely on government subsidies to survive. They argue that the pizza or hardware shop owner doesn’t receive them, so why should the harness racing industry get them? The answer is complicated.  There is more to harness racing than the track. There are farms, breeders, blacksmiths and so on — and that is much different than the pizza shop owner with 10 employees.  If the Meadowlands were ever to go down, it would have a billion-dollar impact on the economy of New Jersey.

So, is 90 racing days at the Meadowlands a sign of doom?  I don’t think so, because the track will be operable for 44 weeks and people will know that, for those 44 weeks, they can watch and bet the Meadowlands on Friday and Saturday.  The 90-day meet in 2018 is smoother than the uneven 91-day meet in 2016.

There will still be the Meadowlands Pace and the Hambletonian and there is new hope with Governor-elect Murphy that a more harness racing-friendly regime will give the state a much needed boost for the future.

John Furgele
As a kid growing up in the Buffalo suburbs in the 1970s and 80s, the radio was one of John Furgele’s best friends. In the evenings, he used to listen to a show on WBEN radio called “Free Form Sports,” hosted by Buffalo broadcast legend Stan Barron. The show ran weeknights from 6 to 11 pm and featured every kind of sport you could imagine. One minute, Mr. Barron was interviewing a Buffalo Sabres player; the next, he was giving high school field hockey scores.

But there was always one thing that caught John’s ear. During those five hours, Barron would give the results from Western New York’s two harness racing tracks — Buffalo Raceway and Batavia Downs. This is where John learned what exactas, quinellas, trifectas and daily doubles were all about. From then on, he always paid attention to harness racing, and when Niatross (a legendary Western New York horse) hit the scene in 1979, his interest began to blossom.

John believes harness racing is a sport that has the potential to grow and he will explore ways to get that done via marketing, promotion and, above all, the races themselves.

When he’s not watching races, John is busy with his family and his job in sales. Like the pacers and trotters, he does a little running himself and you’ll occasionally find him “going to post” in a local 5K race.

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