Big M balancing act

Nick Salvi details what’s behind the tough decisions The Meadowlands
is forced to make in its stakes program for 2023.

by Debbie Little

The stakes landscape will be different at The Meadowlands in 2023, but not due to a lack of trying to keep it the same.

“We want to put on as many stakes races as we can afford to put on and still balance the overnight purse pool so that our overnight races are competitive in the region,” said Nick Salvi, Big M director and administrator of stakes races. “The only thing that keeps us putting on more races or raising the purses is a lack of revenue. We’re not dropping races for any reason other than lack of revenue.”

As reported last week, the Peter Haughton Memorial and Jim Doherty Memorial have a new home at Hoosier Park and now the Graduate mares are one and done due to a lack of entries in 2022.

“When you’re gathering money from a group like 4-year-old pacing mares that are at the top level there aren’t many, so to get the purses to the level that we needed to make the Graduate practical, you have to add a lot of money to keep the purses up where they are,” said Salvi. “For the Graduate, we take a February payment and a March payment, so however many make the nomination and sustaining payments are what you have in the purse pool and you have estimated the purses that you advertise, so when you have a small pool of horses that are paying into it, you have to add a lot of money to get to the numbers that the purse is guaranteed at.”

The Graduate Series for 4-year-old mares debuted in 2022 with a total of 44 mares – 26 pacers and 18 trotters – making both the nominating and sustaining payments. In contrast, their Graduate male counterparts had nearly double the entries.

“You take payments and when you don’t have enough money to make the race worthwhile, you stop having the race,” said Salvi.

Following Bella Bellini’s victory in the TVG Mare Trot on Saturday, Nov. 26, owner Dave McDuffee was interviewed in the winner’s circle and asked if she would be coming back in 2023 and he was noncommittal.

“I had talked to Jeff [Gural] just a few minutes prior to that interview,” said McDuffee. “They had the Graduate Series this year for 4-year-old [mares] but half of them didn’t fill and they cancelled the one in Canada, so I said to Jeff, ‘You need to open up the Graduate to 4- and 5-year-olds.’”

McDuffee was not the only horseman to make this request and according to Salvi the possibility was discussed.

“What you wind up with there, if you’re going to include 5-year-olds, would be the same mares that dominated the series as 4-year-olds, Test Of Faith and Bella Bellini,” said Salvi, who went on to explain that the presence of those top 5-year-olds could deter 4-year-olds from competing.

“The whole premise of the Graduate Series when Jeff wanted to start it back up was because of the Gural Rule, to give the 4-year-olds half the season to race against their own age and then graduate into the open ranks so the Graduate final is always on Meadowlands Pace elimination [night], and at the time, our first open stakes were on Meadowlands Pace [night].”

According to McDuffee, it was Gural that convinced him to bring back Bella after her 3-year-old season because she would have the opportunity to race in the Graduate mare trot. When it comes to 2023, McDuffee has not made any final decision yet between racing or breeding her.

“My guess is if I feel comfortable that there will be enough quality racing for her, I would prefer to race her one more year,” said McDuffee. “I’m leaning that way but until the schedule starts to come together, it’s hard to anticipate if there’s enough good racing for her.

“I’ve had a lot of good horses, but I’ve never had one that has such a following as she has. It doesn’t matter where you go, people say ‘I love that Bella Bellini, I love to watch the way she races.’ Bella does it a different way [because she usually tracks horses down] and I think people kind of like that.”

Should she come back as a 5-year-old, Bella will still have the option to race in the Miss Versatility for older trotting mares. There was even some discussion given to adding a Miss Versatility pacing division, which was not adopted.

“That was going to cost somewhere between $200,000 and $250,000 to put on and we’re just not in a position to do that,” said Salvi. “Like Jeff said in HRU [on Dec. 3], The Meadowlands is going to lose $5 million in operating costs on racing. That’s an alarming statement because all anybody’s used to seeing are the big handle numbers that Dave [Little] writes about when we have a good night at the races. They don’t understand the mathematics. People don’t know that.”

In that HRU edition, Gural addressed the rehoming of the Haughton and Doherty, and in part, said: “Unlike all of our competitors who receive massive subsidies from slots, the standardbred industry in New Jersey only receives $10 million which we share with the breeders and Freehold. Because I am a horsemen, I also give $3 million to $4 million per year from our sports betting profits for purses, even though this year I expect we will lose over $5 million on racing.”

Salvi continued on to explain that unlike in the 1970s, when wagering was all done on-track, today most tracks survive on simulcasting and, for many, the ancillary money from their casino.

“What is realized by the track is a tiny fraction of those big numbers that you see, the $2-, $3-, $4-million handles,” said Salvi. “The on-track handle at The Meadowlands on Meadowlands’ races is always less than 10 per cent of the handle and sometimes far less than that.

“So, it’s not hard to do the math even if you’re going to be generous and say that the off-track dollars bet at The Meadowlands result in four per cent that goes to the track and is split between the track and the purse account. You’re talking about $120,000 on a $3-million night. That’s what it is. That kind of paints the picture.”

The Meadowlands is in the final year of a three-year appropriation from the state of New Jersey, which they are grateful for and hope will be continued. They are also appreciative of all their sponsors since every dollar they send to The Meadowlands to sponsor races goes into the purse account.

“People don’t know, for example, that racetracks that take imported signals make more on the imports than they do on their own product because then you’re getting the lion’s share of the wagered dollar,” said Salvi. “So, the simulcast money plays a very large role in what goes into the purse pool. However, existing legislation that permits the thoroughbreds to choose the dates that they’d like to race through the fall, also dictates that all money from import simulcasting from the Hambletonian until mid-December goes to Monmouth.

“So, fully one-third of the year, the money that’s generated from import simulcasting, which I would venture to say is probably the leading revenue source for racetrack income and purses, goes to Monmouth, because it’s legislated like that, because they used to have a real meet in the Fall.”

At the recently concluded racing secretaries’ meetings, Salvi had to wear several hats as a representative of The Meadowlands, vice president of the Grand Circuit and president of the American Harness Racing Secretaries.

“In race scheduling, my goal is to present the people that own the horses the best opportunity to maximize earnings for the horses they are staking,” said Salvi. “That’s what we should be doing.”

This year, because Oak Grove was late getting in their dates, their 4-year-old series coincided with the Graduate, but for 2023, this has been addressed.

“With Kenny Jackson’s help, who represents Churchill at Oak Grove, we were able to get it sorted out so they are finished before the Graduate Series starts next year, so that will eliminate that conflict,” said Salvi. “We should provide them an unfettered path to race in whatever races they choose to race in and it troubles me when they have to choose between a sire stake and a Grand Circuit race. I’d like to avoid that as much as we can. And we do largely, but we don’t completely.”

There will also be a bit of a retooling for the New Jersey Classics, where rather than “A” and “B” divisions, they’re considering an elimination, final and consolation format.

They’re also considering taking a page out the Breeders Crown and Breeders’ Cup handbook, with a win and you’re in opportunity.

“The winners of the Kindergarten Finals will be extended entry, if they’re eligible, to those final four races,” said Salvi. “They will go directly to final and will draw with the elimination winners as the Breeders Crown did with the Haughton and Doherty this year.

“We want to put on the races and we want horses to race in them. That’s what we do. It’s The Meadowlands, the marquee track for harness racing, and we want to have the best races and the best horses as much as we possibly can.”