By Perry Lefko
The owner of the Meadowlands Racetrack is concerned about the immediate future of his operation due to a critical horse shortage and is considering making major changes in the racing schedule next year.
Jeff Gural told Harness Racing Update that the horse situation is so acute, he may resort to festivals instead of race cards in June next year to make money or drastically alter the stakes schedule in favor of overnights.
This Sunday, the Meadowlands will host Life In Color, which is taking place in 130 cities in more than 50 countries celebrating the origin of color. It’s essentially a huge paint party with music, but it may be a prelude of the type of entertainment Gural plans for his track next year if he can’t attract more horses to make the racing attractive to the betting public.
“I don’t have enough horses,” Gural said. “When you look at this weekend, I think we have one 10-horse race out of 25. That’s a killer for me. If the industry is not going to support me entering their horses, that’s a real problem and, truthfully, it’s not one I was anticipating.
“I think it’s only going to get worse,” he added, claiming the situation has been caused by a lack of industry leadership. “We should sit down and try to come up with a new schedule so that we could all survive. That’s not likely to happen, so I guess I’m the odd man out and that’s a real problem.
“If I had the horses, I’d be okay. We’re doing much better with food and beverage sales. I’ve got to try to bring some more concerts. If I can get some more concerts, I’ll just cancel the racing and have concerts on the weekends in June (next year). I’m not being facetious. It’s not fair to me that I should have to race without having enough horses to race. It’s not a problem for the (horsemen) if I have a concert – they can race at Pocono, or Chester or Yonkers – it’s a problem for me if I don’t have horses. If I have concerts, I don’t see that as a problem.
“The other option is to cut way back on the stakes program and have more money for overnights that are a lot more competitive with Pennsylvania. But I think that would hurt the breeders and I’m reluctant to do it.
“I have to hope that the concert on Sunday goes well. We have some people coming in this weekend to scout for concerts and we have to co-ordinate with the stadium. It’s a complicated thing. My situation is only going to get worse, and unless the industry is willing to work together I’m in trouble – and my guess is the industry is not (willing to work together).”
Gural’s comments come in the same week as a major announcement in Pennsylvania to invest $1.6 million in the state’s harness racing industry, which will boost purses and help the breeding industry. The money will be geared toward the 2015 Pennsylvania Sire Stakes finals and consolation races this year and newly-created races next year for three-year-old filly pacers and colts next season.
Gural looks at the situation in Ontario, where the industry has recovered somewhat after the province cancelled the lucrative Slots At Racetrack Program in April, 2014 after it annually produced hundreds of millions of dollars for the racetrack and the racetrack operators and the provincial government coffers. Many horsemen were forced out of the industry because of the move, which was ill-conceived. However, the Government adopted a new five-year, $400 million program last year to give the industry some stability. Additionally, the racetracks had to work together as part of the agreement instead of working in isolation, thereby eliminating some of the dog-eat-dog behavior.
Gural would love to see some of that co-operative attitude created in the U.S. – albeit it’s a lot harder because of the variety of states and racing jurisdictions.
“Ontario is in much better shape because they work together,” he said. “You see the results. They co-ordinate their race dates, they work together so they’re seeing positive results, which is exactly what would happen if we did that, but it won’t happen here because you have different states where (in Ontario) there’s one basic governmental structure.”
Gural has also been concerned about what will likely be a delay in his hope to have a casino at the Meadowlands. A couple of weeks ago, the Meadowlands and the Hard Rock company unveiled plans for a future casino. Before that can happen, New Jersey State lawmakers have to work on an amendment to allow casino gambling in the state beyond the city limits of Atlantic City.
“I really thought we’d get it this year,” he said. “I just didn’t realize how politics run in New Jersey and now I know, so I know what I have to do next year. I don’t think lobbying helps at all. I think we have to put pressure on from the public. That’s the only thing that can work. I also think Atlantic City will just go broke and at some point they’ll just need us. But I could be wrong.
“I think I will be successful in getting a casino, but it may take a year or two,” he said. “But long term I think we’ll be fine. Not having the amendment on the ballot is a real disappointment because this probably would have been the best year for us to get it passed. Next year is a presidential election and it would be much harder to get our message out.”
He said if the Meadowlands does not get a casino in say 10 years and the horse shortage situation becomes worse, he will look to do something else with the plant.
“I would look to race thoroughbreds, quarter horses, cars, something,” he said. “The place is too nice to just shut down. People like coming here. It’s a cool place. I’ll find a use for the place. I’m not all that worried about that, but I got into this because I love harness racing and not because I love aggravation.
“I’m in it for the duration, I’m not a quitter,” he insisted. “But unless the breeding game changes, there won’t be enough horses 10 years from now to race anywhere. When you see that the number of mares bred is half of what was bred 10 years ago that means that half of the people working in the industry today will be without jobs in 10 years. Whether Jeff Gural is alive or dead, that’s a certainty because there aren’t going to be enough horses.”