Assessing the Jeff Gural era at The Big M

Industry heavyweights weigh in as The Meadowlands celebrates 10 years under the stewardship of principal owner Jeff Gural.

by Debbie Little

Industry leaders give Jeff Gural a top grade for how he’s handled his first decade in charge of The Meadowlands, but there’s still room for improvement.

“I’m a person who always strives to achieve more, and although it’s good, I’d like to see it be better,” said owner Marvin Katz. “I’d like it to be bigger and better.”

Katz was quick to point out that the industry owes Gural everlasting gratitude for saving The Meadowlands, and that without his actions, the industry would not be what it is today.

“In general, I think that he’s done a very good job,” said Katz. “One, in saving The Meadowlands, and two, reversing the trajectory to an upward direction. And three, hopefully continuing to improve the product it provides. It is, I believe, the magnet, in many respects that holds this industry together in North America. It is center ice.”

Owner George Segal, who also co-owns the Red Mile, has won many a race both before and during Gural’s tenure at The Meadowlands.

“I’m not going to say that he saved harness racing, but harness racing would be far worse off if he didn’t do what he did,” said Segal. “I don’t like to compare [the original building to now]. It’s not as opulent as the original was. But I think the racing’s been great. I think the handle has held up very well even though The Meadowlands’ share of the handle is obviously much smaller because there’s not enough on-track betting.

“Under the conditions that we’ve been under, betting from home and watching the races from home, I think he’s done a great job.”

Hambletonian Society president and chief executive officer, John Campbell, appreciates all that Gural has done by saving the track and building a beautiful new building, but there are still a few additions he’d like to see.

“I agree with Marvin,” said Campbell. “I think you’re always striving to improve no matter what you’re doing. From a personal standpoint, on Hambletonian Day, I’d love to see an awning over those seats out front to keep the sun off people. I’d like to see a front paddock built at the west end where the grandstand starts where people could go down and see the horses. Not only on Hambletonian Day, but to be utilized for any big stakes. And I’ve talked to Jeff and Jason [Settlemoir] about both those things.”

Campbell would also like to see the return of the big screen TV at the top of stretch to enhance the racetrack experience for the fans in the backyard.

Trainer Ron Burke would also like to see the return of the front paddock.

“When we lost the paddock that was on the other side, it was the worst thing that happened,” said Burke. “That was the best experience of racing on Hambo Day, when the people would come and stand with their horses. I loved that. And when they built [the new winner’s circle area], they thought they had done the same thing but it was just way too small and it never would have worked.

“I’ve always said we are so far off base when we tried making stars out of the drivers. It doesn’t work. We’ve tried making stars out of some of the trainers. It doesn’t work. The horses are the stars, and that’s what we lose. That’s what people relate to. I learned it with Foiled [Again]. People love the horses, more than they love any of us.”

Trainer Linda Toscano is a director for both the Hambletonian Society and Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association of New Jersey.

“Sure, you wish we had more horses, but I think we have to be very grateful that we have a healthy purse account and we’re able to race for the kind of money that we have right now,” said Toscano. “Jeff’s done everything in his power as far as trying to clean up the sport. As far as giving us a place to race. Fighting with the legislatures and trying to negotiate deals that would benefit the horsemen. Jeff’s done everything in his power to try and keep racing going in New Jersey. It would have been easier, I think, at points, to throw his hands up and say the heck with it.”

Toscano has been quoted previously saying that she would like to see more races for 3-year-olds and that is still high on her wish list.

“We’re the mecca of young horses,” said Toscano. “When you look at the stables that are stabled in New Jersey, this is where a good portion of our great horses are developed and I would love to see a little bit better platform for a young horse to get started at The Meadowlands.

“I hate to see the greatest horses in the country qualifying on a Saturday morning for no money when they could be racing that night. And that’s a shame to me. I’d rather see them race than see them qualify. Qualifying gets them fit, it doesn’t get them tight.”

As a horseman himself, Gural has high expectations but also is open to listening to other horsemen.

“I don’t know if he’s always interested in what I have to say, but he’ll always give me the opportunity to say it,” said Burke. “I have always been given a voice. There’s no problem with me calling him and believe me, if there’s a problem or something’s going on, he has no problem calling me. Communication between me and him has always been excellent.

“We raced under the state and I was a big fan of the old grandstand but I understand why we had to get rid of it. Jeff is tougher but he’s involved, he’s part of it so he expects you to be involved. If you had told me 10 years ago that we’d be sponsoring races I’d have said, ‘No, that’s not our job.’ But it’s everybody’s job to keep The Meadowlands going and I’m alright with that.”