It is well chronicled that horse racing — Standardbred and thoroughbred — has been struggling in the state of New Jersey. Without “racino” revenues to boost purses, racing has suffered at Monmouth, the Meadowlands and Freehold Raceway (the latter two primarily showcase harness racing).
Lower purses have meant fewer racing days, less in-state breeding and an inferior product. For years, the Atlantic City casinos gave the tracks purse subsidies — but that stopped during the final years of Governor Chris Christie’s regime. For the last few years, supporters of racing have tried to find ways to get those purse subsidies back. In 2016, New Jersey voters went to the polls and were asked to approve a casino in North Jersey, presumably at the Meadowlands. It was rejected soundly.
Meadowlands owner Jeffrey Gural has lamented that he needs purse subsidies to continue racing at the Meadowlands. Gural has been subsidizing purses with his own cash and says that he can’t continue this in the future. He has indicated that races like the Meadowlands Pace could be cancelled, with that money used for overnight purses. The Meadowlands Pace offers a purse of at least $700,000 and Gural contends that money might be better spent on overnights, so they can compete better with Yonkers, Harrah’s Philadelphia and Pocono Downs.
With the subsidies in limbo, the Meadowlands applied for 68 racing dates for 2019 — down from 90 in 2018. When told by the New Jersey Racing Commission that the minimum is 76, the track applied for the minimum. Freehold, which often raced Thursday-Saturday, is going to race Friday and Saturday afternoons only in 2019 and it too will race the state minimum of 76.
As grim as this picture may appear, there may finally be some light at the end of the tunnel. It looks like the New Jersey State Legislature is poised to pass a five-year, $100 million plan for purse subsidies at New Jersey’s three horse racing tracks. It would call for $20 million per year, with Monmouth receiving $10 million, the Meadowlands $6 million and Freehold $1.6 million. Another $1.8 million will go to the New Jersey breeding program — money that is sorely needed to build up state stock.
Monmouth applied for 58 racing dates in 2019 and says, if the purse subsidy gets passed, it could increase to 71. The Meadowlands should follow suit, with the hope of getting back to or near the 90-date mark.
Let’s do some simple math based on the current harness racing calendars at Freehold and the Meadowlands. With Freehold, if you take the $1.6 million and divide it over 76 racing dates, that’s $21,052 that could be added to daily purses. Of course, Freehold can do different things with the money — it could increase purses for stakes races, sire stakes or create a high-stakes race that could attract some of the best Standardbreds in the game.
The latter is not likely. If you’re increasing purses, the best thing to do is use it on those who train and race at Freehold all year long. $21,052 may not sound like a lot, but over 10 races that’s $2,100 per race. A preferred pace might run for $10,000 instead of $8,000. That matters.
The Meadowlands would really benefit. On Saturdays, the preferred races at the Big M usually offer a $20,000 purse. By comparison, the Yonkers opens are currently being run for $44,000. With $78,947 in additional daily purses now available, the open races at the Big M could be run for $30k, $40k or even $50k.
This is pure speculation on my part, but the prevailing thought is that Gural and the Meadowlands will use the subsidy to bolster the overnights and the New Jersey Sire Stakes. As much as we love the big race, the overnights are what keep the sport afloat on a daily basis. Gural has hinted that the sire stakes finals could have $250,000 purses, a significant increase over the $100,000 that was offered in 2018.
There were 12 races on the Friday, Dec. 14 card with $141,340 in total purses. If they used that $78K, the total purse jumps to $219,340, an average of $18,278 per race. On the same date, Yonkers offered 10 races and $226,750 in purses, an average of $22,675 per race.
As you can see, the additional $78K would help the Big M close the gap significantly — and with the Big M offering a one-mile oval, there is a chance that some trainers may move some of the horses to race there instead of Yonkers.
And the subsidy should help most in the spring. The Meadowlands does OK in January and February, because the tracks that siphon their horses — Pocono and Harrah’s Philadelphia — are closed. Once March comes, the higher purses at those tracks result in horse shortages in East Rutherford. The purse subsidy might keep enough horses on the Meadowlands’ grounds to help them get through the spring and summer with better quality stock.
If you enjoy harness racing, this is welcome news. Nobody in the sport wants to see the Meadowlands become a third-rate track. It’s done too much good for the sport and, despite being second-rate to some, its handle dwarfs that of most other tracks. Bettors like the one-mile oval and they’ll wager over $2 million on run-of-the-mill Friday and Saturday cards. That said, nobody likes to see bailouts. It’s a dirty word and many think if you can’t market and promote your sport so that it’s self-sustaining, then you should suffer the consequences.
Many in the Garden State are against this legislation. In an Asbury Park Press poll, 58 percent say they are against the purse subsidy, with 42 percent in favor. Nobody likes to see their taxes raised or used to bail out private industry, but many fail to realize how many people would be impacted if harness racing disappeared in New Jersey. Those that work in the game may be forced to take government subsidies in the form of welfare, unemployment and other forms of social services. The taxpayers foot that bill too!
Once the legislation passes, things should get interesting. We will need to hear how both the Meadowlands and Freehold will use the additional monies; we’ll need to see if the Meadowlands adds a few days to the calendar; and we’ll need to see if they have any new tricks up their sleeves.
For now, the subsidy is good news. It does not cure all the ills with harness racing in New Jersey, but things are better now than they were a week ago.
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.