What Gural’s cooking might not taste great, but a lot of people love it

This past week, Meadowlands Racetrack owner Jeff Gural was in the news once again; this time because of a spat with Joe Faraldo, the president of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York (HRU Sunday, June 19). When Jeff and Joe square off you have to be living under a rock to not hear about it, because they’re not shy in sharing their views.

And, frankly, they’re not the only ones. Virtually everyone in the sport has an opinion when Jeff Gural does something; anything. Just visit Twitter, Facebook, or message boards. You’ll see.

I’m not here to defend someone in ongoing feuds, or rehash past decisions or non-decisions that Jeff Gural has made that seem to anger people. I’d simply like to take a quick look at the big picture.

Flip open a program for any racetrack in harness racing and, at times, you’ll see some pretty strange looking racelines. You’ll see complete and drastic form reversals; horses winning off the claim in certain barns which seem to have the Midas touch. You’ll roll over to a chatboard and notice insiders talking about Joe Blow (who is a beard for John Doe), winning at a 0.545 UTRS clip the last two months.

When you open a program for the Meadowlands however, you don’t see much of this at all.

I play the Big M each race day and I honestly can’t remember the last bizarre race result; I can’t really remember anything that left me scratching my head as a betting customer. I don’t remember John Does popping up in the entry box, where I need to hire Perry Mason to do a background check. Everything seems to be normal. When I visit chatboards or look at Twitter or Facebook, I don’t see many such complaints about the Meadowlands, either.

When you watch a race at The Meadows or some other tracks you might see some strange things during a race, too. ’Feet out of stirrups’ is something that has been often complained about in the sport, and at some tracks you might think you’ve stumbled into some Dodge City anachronism. You may wonder if this
track even has rules.

When you tune into the races at the Meadowlands, though, a funny thing happens: The only time you see a driver’s feet leave their proper resting place is when they’re pulling the ear plugs.

When you flip on the races at most tracks you will see many overnights with big purses and some solid claimers. When you flip on the races at the Meadowlands you’ll likely see races where the older pacers are center stage. You’ll see a TVG final, a solid group of horses in a FFA, or a Graduate leg. It’s like night and day.

The above hasn’t happened by accident. Jeff Gural takes stands on issues, and these stands — although sometimes curious, or less consistent than many would like — do have an effect on the sport of harness racing.

The reason you don’t see strange form reversals, beard trainers, or trainers with suspect records race at the Meadowlands is because Jeff Gural told them they are not welcome at the Meadowlands.

The reason you don’t see wild west style cowboy kicking at the Meadowlands is because Jeff Gural told the drivers it is not tolerated at the Meadowlands.

The reason you see races for older pacers at the Meadowlands is because Jeff Gural offers rich races for older pacers at the Meadowlands. He believes that showing races with horses the public knows will increase interest and handle. He’s right; just look at the wagering a Wiggle It Jiggleit race handles, compared to others so far this season.

Gural has (for lack of a better term) ‘fixed’ many of the things people complain about. For that reason, he’s their commissioner of harness racing, and that’s why he has such great support in so many quarters.

What is also apparent is Jeff Gural is doing many of the things folks want, without a slots parlor, and that’s worth high marks to some people. He’s also doing it without star drivers, deep fields of quality pacers and trotters; he’s doing it without the bread and butter of what makes the sport of harness racing run.

How has it been working out? Well, the proof is probably in the pudding.

Handle at the Meadowlands is consistently over $2 million per night. It’s easily the number one track in harness racing from a customer perspective and nothing else is really close. In fact, at some other tracks in harness that are flush with slot money, the purse of a race sometimes does not even equal the amount bet on the race. Don’t for a second think this is easy. Before Gural took over the Big M, handle was cratering.

Despite these small purses, trainers have been supporting the Meadowlands, while many could easily go race at other nearby venues with double the slot purses. Some of the trainers who have been choosing to race their horses at the Big M have clearly done so because they feel they can compete. They darn well know they won’t get their head handed to them from a barn winning at impossible hit rates at the Big M. They have a chance.

Jeff Gural might be polarizing, and he might rub people the wrong way. Some of his decisions certainly do not sit well with many. But what gets lost in the sideshow, in my view, is that over and over again, Gural is more right than wrong. His willingness to take a stand and be proven correct on some of the tough issues he’s laid claim to, sits well with a whole lot of people. That’s why, despite head-scratching headlines and public feuds, he has, and will continue to have a great deal of support.