Gural on why he’s closing Vernon Downs and wants New Jersey to join HISA

The racetrack owner responds to criticism.

by Dave Briggs

Jeff Gural, owner of The Meadowlands, Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs, was in the news on two major fronts this week. The Hall of Famer announced he has begun the process to close Vernon Downs by the end of the year. Gural also sent an email to the Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association of New Jersey (SBOANJ) detailing plans to lobby New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy to end horse racing’s $10 million annual subsidy in the state after one year unless the SBOANJ agrees to support a plan where New Jersey would opt into the thoroughbred-driven Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority.

Both instances are examples of Gural trying to use his political connections and influence to affect the changes he would like to see.

Naturally, both moves were heavily criticized on social media by Gural’s nemesis Joe Faraldo, the president of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York (SOANY).

HRU was in the process of reaching out to Gural to ask about both matters when an email arrived from him explaining his motivation on both subjects.

On the possible closure of Vernon Downs — and it is still not a definite – Gural said he is simply trying to make the operation financially viable.

“The only reason I opened Vernon was because the horsemen begged me when it was closed and in bankruptcy,” Gural wrote. “I knew, economically, it was a mistake because we were six miles from Turning Stone, the nicest casino in the state. On the other hand, as a horse owner and breeder Vernon has a great racing surface and since I breed trotters I thought it was vital to have at least one 7/8th mile oval in the state so I did a stupid thing and agreed to take it over.

“Having said that, once the five new casinos opened that surrounded Vernon in addition to Turning Stone it became impossible for us to compete and the state agreed to give us an additional 6.4 per cent vendor fee provided we maintain 90 per cent of the jobs that existed in 2016.

“Everything was fine until COVID-19 hit. Needless to say, we were not able to maintain the employment levels they required, so they revoked the 6.4 per cent vendor fee and, as expected, I lost $2 million last year keeping it open.

“When I tried unsuccessfully to restore the 6.4 per cent so that I didn’t lose another $2 million they rejected that request and, as a result, I have no choice but to announce the closing.

“Hopefully, the union and the horsemen can make the argument that Vernon is important and convince the state to restore the 6.4% in which case Vernon will stay open. I am not aware of Faraldo writing any checks for $2 million to help the horsemen survive in 2022, so it is no surprise that he is criticizing me for announcing the closure.”

On HISA, Gural’s May 4 email to the SBOANJ read:

“Based on the negative publicity coming out of Churchill Downs this week and the fact that the USTA (United States Trotting Association) is actively opposing the HISA legislation, I have decided to reach out to the Governor next week when I see him and tell him that I don’t want the subsidy extended more than one year unless the SBOANJ agrees to support a plan whereby NJ would opt into HISA. I am optimistic we could get HISA to modify the regulations as they affect our industry as I already have a verbal commitment.

“[USTA president] Russell [Williams] and [USTA chair] Joe [Faraldo] could be leading us on a path of extinction once
the public finds out how prevalent drugs have been in our industry. Keep in mind, 30 people were arrested and [are] in jail. Almost all of them were involved in the standardbred industry. On the other hand, the two thoroughbred trainers were the leading trainers at Monmouth, so that is a blackeye. I think it is critical that the Governor is in a position to defend the additional subsidy by tying it into the fact that the standardbred horsemen are prepared to lead the way and opt into HISA when the time comes. My guess is that will not be for at least another year or two as they will need to get the kinks out with the thoroughbreds.

“I have a good relationship with the Governor. I doubt if he is aware of what happened with all the arrests, but he will be after I discuss it with him in the next few days. We are playing with fire here and the public is really going to be pissed when they find out how prevalent drugs are and the subsidy our industry receives in other states. Hopefully you and your members will agree. The USTA has put us in a terrible position and we
have an opportunity to make the Governor look good here. We will also need his help if we want to get a casino eventually as well.”

In his email to HRU, Gural further said:

“As far as HISA is concerned, the industry has a choice: they can either side with Jeff Gural or Joe Faraldo. I am committed to getting rid of the drugs in the sport. I have accomplished a great deal, but there is more to do and I am not satisfied that the current arrangement where the state is responsible to regulate the sport is the way to go.

“While hopefully The Meadowlands has eliminated most of the drugs I have been told by others that drugs are rampant in other jurisdictions. I strongly believe that as a result of the events last week in Kentucky the media is going to be looking to make a big issue out of the illegal drug use and will eventually find out that almost all of the people who were arrested were standardbred trainers and vets who sold drugs both legal and illegal to standardbred trainers. Only two thoroughbred trainers were arrested so eventually people will be looking at our industry and wonder why they are continuing to subsidize it when the USTA, which represents all of us, is spending millions of dollars of our money to make sure that the status quo remains.”

Gural ended his email to HRU the way he often ends conversations, with a shot at Faraldo and a warning that harness racing has a fraught future.

“I assume most of you will side with Faraldo so don’t blame me if something bad happens,” he wrote. “I tried to get the word out. Time will tell which of us is right but when you consider that Joe’s trainer is currently serving a three-year jail sentence and the other leading trainer at Yonkers is also in jail I
hope you will change your mind. I have personally spent over $1 million to clean the game up and I am not done. I will not rest until the drugs are totally eliminated and I honestly think the status quo doesn’t work.”