Gural weighs in on whether to defer stakes payments

The owner of the Meadowlands said people have to consider the economic reality of staking standardbreds.

by Dave Briggs

Jeff Gural said the COVID-19 pandemic is a “once in every 100 years” catastrophe. But when it comes to the issue of whether to defer April 15 stakes payments, the owner of the Meadowlands Racetrack and Vernon and Tioga Downs sides with the Hambletonian Society’s decision to stay the course and require them on schedule.

On Wednesday, Toronto-based Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG) announced it was suspending April 15 stakes payments. Thursday, the Hambletonian Society announced April 15 payments were due on schedule (see story pg 3).

Early Thursday afternoon, Gural pointed to the economics behind stakes races as a reason for thinking it should be business as usual despite unprecedented societal turmoil.

“I think we all know that the purses for these stakes races are mainly generated by the horses that people think are good that don’t turn out to be so good,” Gural said. “The likelihood, hopefully, is that the vast majority of these stakes races will take place either on schedule or will be pushed to a different part of the calendar.

“I don’t think it’s fair to give people an extra month or two to find out whether their horse is any good or not.”

Gural said giving people more time to assess their horses before opting whether to stake them will “unquestionably lead to a decrease” in the number of horses stakes, which hurts the purses for those stakes. “Obviously, you learn more when you put a horse behind the gate, but hopefully we can get some of these tracks up and running in a couple of weeks even if it’s without customers.”

Asked whether insisting people stake horses on schedule despite massive economic upheaval and uncertainty would also lead to a decrease in the number of horses staked, Gural — a man never afraid to speak an uncomfortable truth as he sees it — said the reality is that stakes races are a rich person’s game.

“Anybody that doesn’t have the money shouldn’t be buying yearlings,” he said. “Honestly, when somebody asks me about buying yearlings my response is always the same, ‘If you hate money, it’s probably a good thing to do.’ The only way you can make money is if you can get lucky with a stallion. When you look at it, most yearlings that you buy, if you look at it at the end of the year, you needed to make $100,000 to break even or make a small profit.

“Everybody goes into this for the fun of it. This is a fun thing and it’s a thrill when you win and it’s deflating when you lose and you have to enjoy the high points because there are more lows than highs. I’ve lost a lot of money and I don’t regret any of it, other than the fact that we allow these drug guys to go on for so long.”

Asked whether the economic crisis would inevitably lead even wealthy people to pull back on their expenditure on horse racing, Gural said that it is likely, “but that’s not going to determine whether they should make a payment in April or May. The stock market is up a lot again today and the government is printing money and I just think that things are going to be better… maybe better, I don’t know. This is catastrophic, don’t get me wrong, and hopefully if it ends in two months that’s a lot different than if it ends in six months.”

For the record, despite his tracks playing host to a number of Hambletonian Society stakes, Gural is not a director of the Hambletonian Society. Neither is he directly affiliated with WEG. He did say the Hambletonian Society did contact him — as it did with many important players in the industry — to get his opinion about whether to keep to the April 15 stakes payment schedule

As for when he foresees live racing to resume at the Meadowlands, Gural said he plans to appeal to the governor of New Jersey to, “let us race in a few weeks, even if it’s with an empty grandstand.

“If I knew this was going to be over within two months, I think we’ll come out of it pretty well. If it’s six months, I make no predictions because that would mean that we’re not even racing. That would be catastrophic.

“The 2-year-olds, I would expect, will be totally unaffected by this unless this really drags on.”

Gural said he’s not so sure the 3-year-olds will be so lucky.

He said the fact many thoroughbred tracks have continued racing by banning spectators and instituting strict social distancing procedures helps the argument that harness racing might be able to resume safely soon.

For the moment, he said he has much bigger concerns.

“This is terrible, people are dying,” Gural said. “It’s a mess, but remember this is once every 100 years and we’ll have to get through it.”