by Dave Briggs
Meadowlands owner Jeff Gural said Tuesday that sports betting at his East Rutherford, NJ track has been so successful there will be an additional $2 million in stakes events for New Jersey-sired horses beginning in 2022 thanks to a partnership between his track and the Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association (SBOA) of New Jersey.
“We have an agreement with the horsemen that they get 25 per cent of any sports-betting revenue over $6 million dollars with a minimum of a million dollars. Our best guess is that will result in the horsemen getting a payment at the end of the year between $2.5 and $3 million dollars, depending on how the (sports) underdogs do between now and the end of the year,” Gural said, laughing.
“We would be in deep trouble without sports betting because the horse racing has really suffered financially and it’s really the sports betting that’s keeping us afloat, unfortunately.”
The $2 million is on top of a previously-announced 20 per cent increase in purses for New Jersey Sires Stakes (NJSS) events.
Gural said he hopes people take that into consideration while bidding on horses at the Lexington Selected yearling sale.
“The reason we did it this way was to help the sale and help those people who bred to Jersey stallions,” he said.
It also sends a powerful message to state of New Jersey which is subsidizing racing and requiring the industry to prove it has used the money wisely to grow the industry in order to continue to receive the subsidy.
“That was my argument with the SBOA. I thought we had a moral responsibility to use the money to help support New Jersey racing and breeding, because this is clearly aimed directly at bringing mares and stallions into the state and creating green space and jobs,” Gural said.
The new stakes events, called the New Jersey Classics, will offer colt and filly divisions for all races and be raced in an elimination and final format for 2- and 3-year-old trotters and 2-year-old pacers with an “A” and “B” division offered for all.
“We have a smaller purse structure for the pacers, because the only pacing stallion in New Jersey really is Lazarus next year. We don’t need a 3-year-old race, we just needed a 2-year-old race,” Gural said.
Tentatively scheduled for September, 2022, the trotting races will both have a final purse estimated at $300,000 for the A division and $100,000 for the B division while the 2-year-old pacers will go for $150,000 in the A and $75,000 in the B. Nominating and sustaining payments will be required and are being estimated.
Gural said New Jersey is taking a different approach than Kentucky, which is adding $11 million to its sires stakes program in 2022, but spreading the money out over multiple legs. Gural said more races might not be the best plan for young horses.
“There’s so many legs (in Kentucky) and literally you’re starting up right after the Hambletonian and then you’re going almost right into Lexington, so the horses really don’t get a break,” Gural said. “With that in mind, we decided that we… when we reopen (the Meadowlands) on Labor Day, we’re only open three weekends in September and we would utilize those weekends for these races. Essentially, the horses get about a month off after the Hambletonian, assuming they raced in the Peter Haughton or the Kindergarten or other stakes that we have on Hambletonian weekend. Then, they would get another two weeks off before the Grand Circuit starts and then they get another week off, I think, before the Breeders Crown. Maybe two weeks, I’m not sure. And then you get another two weeks off before the Final Four. It spreads it out a little more, so these horses are not beaten up at 2 and then they can become good 3-year-olds and, hopefully, good 4-year-olds.”
Gural has long been an advocate of keeping star horses on the track longer to help grow fan interest.
“There’s no question that people respond to stars. There’s no successful sports franchise, maybe with the exception of Tampa Bay in baseball, that doesn’t have stars. People want to come see Aaron Judge or Jacob DeGrom pitch. This Ohtani guy is an amazing guy. Lebron James – that’s who people want to see.
“When Michael Jordan was around, everyone wanted to go to the Bulls. Now, a ticket to the Bulls games haven’t been that much in demand.”
Gural said he is excited about what the new stakes could mean for New Jersey’s breeding industry and keeping more horses in New Jersey longer should be helpful for filling fields at The Big M.
“It’s huge and it’s going to help people that are breeding in New Jersey. Hopefully, people are paying attention to what’s happening because this is a terrific boost to not only have a $240,000 final for the Jersey sires, but to open up just after Labor Day with a $300,000 race for the Jersey horses and a B division as well. So, it gives everybody a chance to make some money,” Gural said.
“If you buy one of those (New Jersey-sired horses) that’s not dual eligible you’ll have a $300,000 race for your horse in September, if you have one of the top 2-year-olds. And if you bought a good 2-year-old last year then you’ll have a $300,000 race next year for the 3-year-olds.”
With the exponential growth of sports betting in New Jersey, Gural said he hopes to use some future money for marketing harness racing.
“It’s unfortunate that we don’t use some of this money for marketing. At the end of the day, people will look back and think what a stupid mistake that was. We’ve proposed to the SBOA… because we’re not using up all of the money, that we should utilize about $200,000 for marketing, so I’m hopeful that the SBOA will go along with us,” Gural said.
“I want to do some of the things that the casino is doing. People don’t understand how much money the casino spends in marketing. It’s a great business and, believe me, so is sports betting, but look how much they spend marketing in sports betting. Anyone watching television sees ads for Fan Duel, Draft Kings, Bet MGM… they spend a fortune marketing and we spend nothing on marketing, literally. I have some ideas that I’d like to try to see if they work.”