The heat is on at The Big M

An early season heatwave has the track prepared to keep everyone safe.

 by Debbie Little

June is the time when things start to heat up at The Meadowlands, but typically, it’s happening on the track.

This year, the summer solstice (June 20) fell in the middle of an anticipated heatwave.

“It’s just unfortunate that we’re having to pay attention to the heat indexes so early in the year here because as we get into the warmer summer months — the typically warmer summer months of July and August — I don’t know what we’ll see,” said The Meadowlands chief operating officer/general manager Jason Settlemoir. “It does cause me a little bit of concern to see these temperatures already in the middle of June.”

The fact that weather plays a big part in his job is welcomed by Settlemoir.

“I love weather,” the 47-year-old Settlemoir said. “I’ve been watching the weather my entire life, so I keep a pretty close eye on it. I’ve always been interested in hurricanes and tornadoes and those kinds of things and how exactly these things wind up on our radars.”

Prior to coming to work for Jeff Gural in 2006 at Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs, and eventually, The Big M in 2012, Settlemoir worked at tracks in his home state of Ohio.

“When I was at Scioto Downs, they called me ‘the meteorologist,’ because I constantly had my eye on the weather and was always checking if there were storms approaching and those types of things,” Settlemoir said.

Since setting up shop in northern New Jersey, Settlemoir still keeps his eyes on the sky, but what he’s seeing is somewhat different.

“This area is very, very strange for weather,” Settlemoir said, adding with a laugh, “And you can count on one thing here in East Rutherford, that if you think it’s going right, it’ll probably go left.”

A heat dome dropped on the Northeast earlier this week with what some news outlets are reporting as the hottest stretch for much of this country in 30 years. On Wednesday (June19), the anticipated heatwave kicked off with a high of 91 degrees in East Rutherford, prompting heat advisories for the area.

Today (June 21) is expected to be the worst of the hot, hazy, humid days, but having to deal with scorching temperatures is nothing new to Settlemoir and his team.

“Well, there are many things that we do to keep everybody safe,” Settlemoir said. “First of all, we take our direction from the New Jersey Racing Commission and if the heat index is at 105 degrees or above there would be delays that are put in place to see if that number would come down.

“The fortunate part for us is that we race at night. So, generally speaking, the cooler air does start to move in in the evenings, once the sun goes down.”

According to Settlemoir, heat advisories are issued when a combination of the heat and humidity are expected to make it feel like 95 to 99 degrees for two or more consecutive days or 100 to 104 for any length of time.

“Now, as you can see, those numbers don’t quite reach the status of the 105 degrees with the heat index where we would have to start thinking about pushing back the races later until the cooler conditions set in or ultimately cancelling,” he said. “While that possibility does exist, it hasn’t happened since I’ve been here where we’ve had to cancel at night [due to heat].

“It looks to me as though [tonight], which would be the more difficult day of the two [race] days, they’re also forecasting thunderstorms for the evening, which would lower the temperature as well.”

Anyone racing at The Meadowlands this weekend will see the track’s usual heat-related precautions in place.

“There will be buckets of water in the winner’s circle with sponges and ice in it to be able to cool the equine athletes down and as soon as they arrive back, there will also be additional water and ice located throughout the paddock. And then, obviously, with the human side of things, we encourage them to stay hydrated as well.

“We have EMTs that are here fully staffed at any point in time that this property is open. As a matter of fact, when we race live, we have EMTs up front and then we have EMTs in the back…  And we have the New Jersey Racing Commission and their staff and vets that are on hand that will be paying particular attention to make sure that the equine athlete does not overheat and we’ll be keeping a very close eye on them.”

In anticipation of a hot July and August, Settlemoir said that The Meadowlands has already ordered even more fans, including the kind that mist.

“I noticed it early on and [Hambletonian Society president] John Campbell and I had talked about it as well,” Settlemoir said. “I noticed the weather pattern and, look, let’s just be honest, it went from being downright chilly to downright hot.”

Trainer Jim Campbell, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Goshen, NY, two weeks from Sunday, is racing tonight at The Meadowlands and will be shipping in from Magical Acres, which is about an hour away without traffic.

Jim said under normal circumstances he’s not worried about his horse making the trip to the track in the heat.

“The only time when it would really be a concern, and you have no control over it, is if there happened to be a major delay on the road and you’re standing still,” Jim said. “But as long as you’re moving, that keeps the air circulating through [the trailer] and keeps them comfortable.”

According to Jim, everyone just needs to use common sense and make sure that the windows are all open on their trailers, so that the horses can feel that breeze.

People of a certain age will certainly remember taking long car trips with the windows rolled down prior to air conditioning being common.

“If it’s 70 degrees or 90 degrees, it’s the same,” Jim said. “You just want to have [the trailer] ventilated very well.”

With such an active weather pattern already in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Atlantic Ocean so early in the season, Settlemoir expects there may be more heatwaves to come.

“History tells us that when those types of conditions present themselves so early in the year at the beginning of summer that it will be a long and hot summer,” Settlemoir said. “At the end of the day, if the horsemen need anything additional, then they should just let us know and we’ll make sure that we’re doing what we can to make sure that they’re all protected.”