The sport needs a new mile track

by Brett Sturman

At Thursday’s annual East Coast Gaming Congress (ECGC) held at Harrah’s Atlantic City, Meadowlands owner Jeff Gural remained adamant that a casino will come to North Jersey. Speaking at the conference, Gural said that he would be willing to wait up to another six years for the proposal.

The logic is that as casinos open in southern New York in the upcoming years, that it would make little sense (even less sense than now) to keep casino gambling in New Jersey limited to Atlantic City. Gural wouldn’t want the vote of a casino in north Jersey to come up again if it would fail, and that same referendum was most recently voted against this past November by a drubbing of 80 per cent to 20 per cent.

Assuming that a Meadowlands casino doesn’t come until sometime far off into the future (if at all), what does that mean for the track?

Remarkably, despite being relegated to an eroded quality of racing that resembles nothing of the quality that the Meadowlands was built on, no other harness track handles anything close to the Meadowlands. This past Saturday, despite almost half the races loaded with horses that had been racing at Freehold including a straight $5,000 claiming event for $4,500, the track handled close to $3 million.

The highest purse for an overnight race on the Meadowlands card was an invitational for $20,000. Conversely, the lowest overnight purse across the river at Yonkers was $27,000 and highest were two open handicaps for $55,000 each. Yet, that track only handled a meager $565,000 on the same night. Pocono Downs was another track Saturday that top to bottom featured superior racing to that of the Meadowlands, but that track typically does not atract more than a few hundred thousand dollars in handle.

Why is it that the Big M always handles in the $2 to $3 million range no matter what it throws out on the track, while other U.S, tracks race the best overnight horses going yet can’t handle a fraction of what the Meadowlands can?

To some degree, it’s due to the reputation and the following of serious gamblers that the Meadowlands earned throughout its heyday and retains today, but a large part of it is due to the fact that it’s one of the few larger sized (7/8 or mile) tracks in the U.S. and the only one on the east coast.

Today, no one wants to bet any type of serious money on the smaller sized tracks. It doesn’t matter how good the quality of racing is or what the takeout rate is or any other factors; the larger tracks draw the big wagering money. Fellow mile track Cal Expo routinely handles over $1 million as did the former mile track at Balmoral Park, and the quality of horses racing at those tracks largely consists of $2,500 claimers.

What we’re left with is a dynamic where the lesser quality horses race at a place where everyone bets, and the best horses race at places where relatively no one bets at all. It’s a very strange scenario that probably couldn’t exist anywhere other than in harness racing.

Wouldn’t it make the most sense for there to be a place that has mutually both the best horses racing at it and the most people wagering at it? The easiest solution would be for the Meadowlands to get slots, but if that doesn’t happen, then a new one-mile harness track should come into play.

The benefits of a one-mile track are easy to see. Former Meadowlands director of racing and Hall of Famer Joe DeFrank spoke these such things in a documentary about the history of the Meadowlands, where he said one of the first things needed when the Meadowlands first opened was a starting car with an ability to race 10 horses. It’s common today, but back in the 1970’s and before then most tracks could only race eight horses on the gate. DeFrank realized larger fields were not only conducive towards more competitive fields, but it enabled horsepeople to race their horses more frequently and allowed bettors the opportunity to wager on larger fields, and get a fair shake by doing so.

Just the opposite is seen today where horsepeople balk at the idea of starting more than eight horses to a race (on a five-eighths mile track no less in the case of Harrah’s Philadelphia), and many of these smaller sized tracks are so speed favoring that it makes for largely uncompetitive racing. More often than not, horses are doomed on the smaller sized tracks even before the start of a race due to an undesirable post position.

In addition, the style of racing at smaller sized tracks suffers too. DeFrank was almost prophetic in how he spoke years ago about the need to have a style of racing that includes no slowing down of the pace, if you’re on the outside you have to keep moving forward and if you get beat, at least you get beat trying. With the exception of a couple tracks, racing today consists entirely of just the exact opposite. And yet despite this, every new track that has sprouted in recent years has been of the five-eighths mile variety.

All potential logistical issues and details notwithstanding, what would happen as a hypothetical if Pocono Downs rebuilt their track to be one mile? It already is recognized as having the best racing surface in the country as well boasting one of the highest daily purses, so is it impossible to think that with a one-mile track that Pocono couldn’t become the new preeminent track in the country, the way that the Meadowlands used to be viewed in terms of both quality stock and handle?

If not Pocono, an east coast one-mile track should come from somewhere. The industry needs a one-mile oval for all of its participants. It only makes sense that the best horses are racing at the best possible track.