Proceeds from sports betting and the looming subsidy bill could put Meadowlands back on the map.
by Brett Sturman
It’s no secret the Meadowlands has fallen in stature in recent years. Though still harness racing’s flagship track, the Big M has struggled. Down to racing just two days a week with limited purses and with limited lower quality horses, the Meadowlands at times resembles a shell of what it was not too long ago before it had to compete without a subsidy against slot-rich neighboring states.
But that could change very soon.
A full New Jersey senate vote could come this Monday (Dec. 17) on legislation that would provide $100 million over the next five years for horse racing in the state. With $20 million in total to be provided on an annual basis across the states thoroughbred and harness tracks, the Meadowlands Racetrack would see $6 million per year.
Meadowlands Racetrack owner Jeff Gural sees the subsidy as a way of leveling the playing field against competing tracks.
“I would expect our purses will be better than the purses are in Pennsylvania. I think that our purses will be higher,” Gural said.
Doing the best with what it has to work with, the Meadowlands has been successful at putting together race cards with mostly complete fields in recent years during the winter months. But where it gets hit the most is in the spring when the PA tracks of Chester and Pocono re-open and then horses that were at the Meadowlands move to the richer tracks.
Gural said he plans to directly combat this in how the Meadowlands utilizes the subsidy should it come to fruition.
“We’re toying with it where we would probably increase purses 25 per cent in the winter months when Pennsylvania is closed, and then the period when we’re competing with the PA tracks we would probably increase the purses by 75 per cent,” he said. “I think it will allow us to offer purses that in theory should be able to attract horses to race, but there’s no guarantee. Everybody says the reason that they race at these other tracks is because of the purses, and that won’t be an excuse anymore. But it’s also possible that they race at other tracks because they are easier or because (what I call the) ‘drug guys’ are not allowed to race at my tracks, so obviously that makes a difference.”
In addition to the upcoming appropriation legislation, just over the past two weeks Gural and the Standardbred Breeders and Owners of New Jersey announced an agreement where the Meadowlands would share a minimum of $1 million per year from sports betting revenues to the purse account. It’s been a run of good fortune for Gural as owner of the track since sports betting was legalized in the state and went into effect at the Meadowlands this summer, though he describes a bleak picture if things had not gone the way that they did.
“I think without the sports betting I don’t know if I could have kept the Meadowlands open,” said Gural. “I would have just gotten to a point of losing too much money. We have short fields and a lot of the drivers take winters off or they’ve gone to race at Yonkers, so we were in a very bad situation without the sports betting and without the subsidy.”
Without the subsidy, Gural reiterated drastic measures he’s said previously that would need to be taken to stay afloat, such as the elimination of all pacing stakes races including the Meadowlands Pace.
“We’re doomed without the subsidy, and it’s really been an ordeal to get the subsidy to be honest,” said Gural. Referring to the legislation that was first introduced in September, Gural said, “We actually had the subsidy, but only for one year, but then the horsemen elected to try to get it for five years, which is certainly better, but it’s delayed the process. And we’re really running out of time because we have to know what we’re doing in the beginning of January.”
Though the full senate vote could come Monday, Gural said that the Assembly would take up the subsidy legislation in the beginning of January. This would be seen as the most likely time for action to be taken on it according to Gural, provided the Assembly elects to take it on.
Asked if he’s confident the bill will pass, Gural said “I think so, I’ve been told they’re going to do it.”
If and when the bill is ultimately passed, Gural said that the impact of the subsidy would be swift in that an immediate increase in the purses offered at the Meadowlands would be seen.
The other impact of the bill is with regards to the sire stakes program offered at the Meadowlands. In addition to the annual $6 million, another $1.8 million would go towards the New Jersey Sire Stakes program.
“You would see the sire stakes resurrected and the finals I think will go for $250,000. So that will help the sire stakes and the New Jersey breeders, and it will be a real benefit to be a New Jersey breeders and race your horses in New Jersey,” Gural said.
It appears that between sports betting and a freshly looming 5-year subsidy, the Meadowlands has somehow weathered the worst of it. Next year should be a comeback year in a major way for the track.