For years, Jeffrey Gural has complained of an uneven playing field. The owner of Meadowlands Racetrack has, at times, complained perhaps more than he should. To his credit, he has been consistent. While tracks in New York and Pennsylvania benefit from casino monies, the Big M does not. In addition to that, both New York and Pennsylvania have been fairly generous appropriating funding for harness racing. In sum, both the Empire and Keystone state tracks are getting money from two places that Gural and the Meadowlands isn’t — casinos and state legislatures.
Gural has always made threats. He has said that if he doesn’t get money, he will stop funding the high-purse stakes races and will use that money to make the overnight purses a bit more competitive with those of his neighbors. This could mean no more Meadowlands Pace and many other important dates on the Big M calendar.
These threats are made annually, but, in the end, Meadowlands churns on with its 90-day racing calendar. Unlike the other tracks, the Meadowlands makes its money from track handle, not casinos. And because of its one-mile oval, it remains the handle leader in the sport. Bettors have always liked the Big M because, not surprisingly, races on one-mile ovals are fairer than those on half- and 5/8-mile tracks. That said, most of the handle is off-track and tracks don’t get more than 17 percent of it.
Last Saturday, the International Trot was contested at Yonkers Raceway and the card featured almost $1.8 million in purse money. Meanwhile, at the Meadowlands, there were 11 races that offered $115,375 in total purse money. Yonkers handled just over $1 million while the Meadowlands handled over $1.6 million. So, despite better quality at Yonkers, those that wager, wager at the Meadowlands.
It looked like the New Jersey State Legislature was going to give thorougbred and harness racing a $20 million yearly subsidy that Gural said would be used to increase purses as well as helping the New Jersey breeding industry. It should come as no surprise that there is less breeding in the Garden State and more in New York and Pennsylvania. The old saying of going where the money is has never been truer.
The bill has stalled and Gural submitted his dates for the 2019 season… and here comes the alarming part.
Without that state subsidy, the Meadowlands submitted just 68 racing dates for 2019, down from 91 in 2017 and 90 in 2018. When informed that the minimum number is 76, Gural and the Meadowlands applied for that minimum. The track plans on racing Fridays and Saturdays from Jan. 4 through Aug. 3 and then would pick up again in September, skip October and November, before finishing its season in December.
Winter racing is not the issue at the Meadowlands. It’s when the Pennsylvania tracks open in March that creates the issue. Drivers and trainers will compete at the Big M during those cold and frigid days in the dead of winter, but, once March comes, they leave for the higher purses at Pocono and Harrah’s. And, to be fair, winter racing is for the veteran pacers and trotters, not the superstars. Winter racing is for those that wish to gamble. The superstar horses are resting while the 2-year-olds haven’t even started training.
The Hambletonian Society operates the Hambletonian so that event should be safe and secure on the Meadowlands calendar and Gural was careful with his words. He said that the “track would operate from January 4 through Hambletonian Day, August 3.”
Trust me, the meaning there wasn’t subtle.
Without the state subsidy, the TVG finals as well as the Kindergarten series could be eliminated from the Meadowlands program, further eroding both the prestige of the track and New Jersey breeding.
Clearly, Gural is trying to force the legislature’s hands. He did indicate that, should the subsidy pass, the track would revisit the number of dates, which could include a modified fall schedule. The bottom line is simple: if the subsidy passes, look for more days and a full stakes program. If not, who knows?
There is another scenario, too. Because horse racing is regulated by the state, the track and the state have to agree on the racing schedule. We see this each and every year; last year Plainridge submitted a 100-day schedule, the state said no and they settled on 110. New Jersey could reject this submission and the two sides would have to come up with an agreeable number.
Let’s assume that the 76-day proposed schedule is rejected by the state and let’s also assume that the subsidy is not passed. Gural would be within his right to close down the track entirely for 2019 and perhaps beyond. If he wants to race, he and the state have to agree, but zero dates is an option for him.
Nobody thinks Gural wants to do this; he loves the game and has his own stable of horses. But sometimes, enough is enough. If your business can’t make money, would you keep throwing your own money into it just to keep it going? Most of us wouldn’t and Gural might be getting to his tipping point. He has made these threats before, but, in the end, has always written the checks to keep racing afloat at The Big M.
The Meadowlands wants to race 83 days in 2019. That’s down seven dates from 2018, because Monmouth Park wants to race at the Meadowlands in September and October, something that, by law, they are permitted to do. If the subsidy passes, Gural says that purses will increase and the fall stakes program will remain intact.
State lawmakers think the bill will pass before the end of the year, but what are they waiting for? Perhaps some legislators are calling Gural’s bluff; maybe they are tired of the complaining, while some think that if harness racing can’t survive on its own then so be it. There will always be those who believe that government should stay out of subsidizing businesses.
It’s a tricky issue. Unlike, say, a pizza place, there are many layers to the business of harness racing. We know that. If any track closed, hundreds and thousands would be affected — from custodians to breeding farms and so on. This is the reason why states often step in and help. Nobody wants to see jobs vanish.
In New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, every track has a casino. When people pump money into
electronic slots, a portion of that goes to harness racing. Northfield Park in Ohio, to my personal amazement, usually runs 16 races per night and every race has a full-field. The casino money helps to stabilize that.
The Meadowlands does not have that; they run on the old 1970-2000 system. They hope they can generate enough handle to stay afloat. The lack of casino and state monies means races are written for $6,500 while neighboring Yonkers writes them for $23,000. If you’re training and racing horses, where would you go?
The sports book at the Meadowlands is operated by FanDuel. I wonder if they’re offering odds as to how this plays out.
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.