The Time is Now

For New Jersey harness racing, it is long past the time that casinos came to the northern 
part of the state.

by Dave Little

“What took you so long?”

That is the question the entire standardbred industry in the state of New Jersey has been asking since word came Monday that Garden State legislators approved putting a referendum on the November ballot that could bring casino gaming to the Meadowlands or elsewhere in northern New Jersey.

The politicians’ voice was loud and clear: the senate approving the measure by a vote of 34-6 and the Assembly by 54-16. It is highly doubtful the voters will be as high on gaming come November.

A poll done last week by Rutgers University revealed that 49 per cent of those asked opposed extending gambling beyond Atlantic City while 44 per cent supported it.

“The fact is that conditions change, and if you don’t adapt, you become dinosaurs — you become extinct,” Ralph Caputo, Democratic Assemblyman from Essex County, told

For years now, those who work hard to make a living in the harness racing game have seen casino after casino built in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York. So what could New Jersey horsemen do? They had to race much of their stock out of state to compete for purses bloated by the revenues created by the casinos at Dover Downs, Rosecroft Raceway, Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, Harrah’s Philadelphia, Saratoga Harness and Yonkers Raceway.

Historically, Atlantic City interests have had their backers in the New Jersey legislature. But in 2014, when one-third of Atlantic City’s 12 casinos shut their doors, it became clear that something had to be done. Fast forward two years and here we are, with the decision in the hands of New Jersey voters.

While the aforementioned poll confirms it will be a tough road ahead for backers of casino gaming, I don’t see why voters would be against it.

Atlantic City casino revenue has fallen by more than 50 per cent since 2006, as competition continues to erode their fan base. The hotels are okay, but the ones that are still operating clearly aren’t what they once were.

How about if you want to bet the horses in AC? Good Luck finding a place that will take your action. The Borgata, the only hotel — in my opinion — that gives a Las Vegas-style experience, has the only race book in town. There was a time when almost every hotel casino had horses.

The Atlantic City interests have had time to adjust to the changing market and proved they were not up to the task. It’s true that eight more casinos are expected to be built in the Northeast in the next three years, but even with that, it’s hard to imagine a casino at the Meadowlands not being wildly successful.

New Jersey’s Bergen County is one of the more affluent in the country. The median household income is $82,105. There is plenty of disposable income with a number like that. If someone is looking for casino action for the night and they live in Paramus, they will not drive two hours-plus to AC. They cross the George Washington Bridge and head for Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway, where they also have affluent Westchester County residents beating down the door. If the Meadowlands gets a casino, that Paramus patron heads for the Big M, keeping the money in the Garden State, with a cut of that green going to the harness industry in New Jersey.

What affect has casino gaming had on the Meadowlands vs. Yonkers tale of the tape? A profound one.

Handle on Yonkers’ March 12 program was just shy of $700,000. In this generation, not a bad number. Wagering at the Meadowlands on the same date was just over $3 million. Quite a disparity, to be sure.

There was another big disparity: Total purses. Yonkers paid out $212,000 – and they are about to get an increase — while the Big M offered $133,900. If the gaming measure were to pass in November, once the revenue river started flowing down the Berry’s Creek, the Meadowlands would be in a position to be much more competitive from a purse point of view.

Freehold Raceway? For a track that’s been teetering on harness obscurity for some time now, bigger purses would be even more appreciated than they would be at the Big M.

The overall health of New Jersey harness racing would get a huge jolt of positive energy. With bigger purses, the breeding industry – possibly the single most important entity in this entire process – would produce more horses. Why do you think the sire stakes programs in New York and Pennsylvania are so lucrative? Revenue from gaming. Why is the New Jersey Sire Stakes program lagging behind those two border states? Lack of revenue from gaming.

It’s important to keep one fact clear: This is not a handle issue. The Meadowlands is going to be horse-population challenged for the next several months, and even with that, the Big M will out handle the other tracks by a wide margin. In the event the Meadowlands was forced to card 10-race programs with eight horses in every field, they’d likely still bet $2 million, which is far more than their primary foes would.

No, this casino gaming measure is about increasing revenue so that the Big M has a shot at getting the best horses, trainers and drivers to compete at the mile oval, and keep them there. If that happens, more horses will be bred, more blacksmiths will be needed, more hay will be sold and the sport’s lifeline will increase precipitously.

New Jersey’s harness interests will have to get going on this one. They’ll have to spend some serious green in an effort to get voters to come to their aid. Even if the casino gaming measure passes in November, it would likely be 12 months more before the first quarter is dropped into a machine. Atlantic City’s casino interests have had their monopoly for 40 years, and now, things are not going well.
For casino gaming in Northern New Jersey, the time is now.