New Jersey purse subsidy on the cusp of being extended through 2029

The deal, which is critical for the survival and growth of the standardbred industry in New Jersey, has passed the State Senate and now awaits Governor Phil Murphy’s signature.

by Brett Sturman

This week, New Jersey Assembly Bill 5893, which extends annual horse racing purse subsidy through the State fiscal year 2029, passed through the State Senate by a vote of 35-1. That followed the passing of the bill by the state Assembly of 73-0 from Dec. 21. It is widely presumed that the formal signing of the legislation by Governor Phil Murphy is imminent.

Current law from 2019 required $20 million annually for the purse subsidy to be allocated to the New Jersey Racing Commission to be split evenly between the thoroughbred industry and the standardbred industry. With the fiscal year 2024 budget already approved with the subsidy, an extension of five fiscal years would put the subsidy in place through the end of the decade.

The pending extension of the bill is the result of work put forth by many different stakeholders and organizations, one of those being the Standardbred Breeders & Owners Association of New Jersey (SBOANJ). SBOANJ president Mark Ford, who reserved just the slightest bit of reservation until the bill is formally signed, noted that the subsidy is piggybacked to other bills.

“First of all, I am extremely proud of all the work that the board has done to acquire this subsidy both last time and this time, because it was a tremendous amount of work.” Ford said. “It was a lot of old-fashioned roll up your sleeves, door-to-door, going to all the different functions of cold hard politics, and it was a hard sell, too. There was some fighting and at times even some infighting, but I have to take my hat off to Mike Gulotta, Tom Pontone, Al Ochsner, Julie Miller and really the entire board for all the work and nights it took to get it done.”

The thoroughbred industry will receive $10 million of the subsidy. The remaining $10 million to the harness industry will be allocated as follows in accordance with current law: 60 per cent will go towards overnight purses at The Meadowlands, 12 per cent to Freehold overnight purses, 12 per cent to the New Jersey Sires Stakes purses, a six per cent purse bonus for New Jersey-sired horses and six per cent for breeders’ awards purses.

“It means a lot to all of us,” said Ford. “It’s all for the overnights, both at The Meadowlands and at Freehold. It’s for the breeders’ awards, and every bit of it goes back to the grassroots and to the people that make New Jersey racing. It doesn’t go into any of the programs administering open stakes. It goes into what it’s made to do, and that’s to promote New Jersey harness racing. I think it’s sometimes perceived as a handout, but it’s not. The subsidies allow for money to remain in the state, it supports the grassroots programs, and encourages people to breed in New Jersey.”

The subsidy first began in 2019 as a means for New Jersey racing to remain competitive with neighboring states whose racing programs receive support directly from casino gaming revenues. Securing the purse subsidy now for another five years in a single shot will be monumental for the industry in the state.

Ford said that going back to 2019, “We knew we needed subsidies for 10 years as sports wagering in the state gets to a larger point. We had five years initially, and then with COVID and all the political unrest, we were able to get it for another year (2024), and this time we were able to get it through for five years. It was challenging in how we approached this too, with much of the surrounding negativity and positive tests in the news, so we’ve been very careful in promoting the right end to this.”

With funding being secured for the year’s end, it should further a renewed confidence in the state’s breeding program.

Already standing top trotting sires Walner, Muscle Hill and Tactical Landing, New Jersey adds Ecurie D to the roster in 2024. All four of those trotting sires stand at Southwind Farms of New Jersey. On the pacing side, the state awaits the first crop of 2021 3-year-old champion Perfect Sting and adds Tattoo Artist as a new sire this year too. Both of whom stand at Deo Volente Farms. With a strong program ensured for the foreseeable future, the state could play home to more top stallions.

Ford does note caveats in that the industry will need to perform in order for the subsidy to be continually renewed. As a condition of receiving continued purse subsidies, recipients of the funds must report to the Legislature, the Governor, and the New Jersey Racing Commission on the uses of funds appropriated in the preceding year. This annual report — something that has already been submitted since 2019 — includes information on handle, breeding, and other indicators that show the effects of the subsidies to the health of the industry in the state.