Is 2019 The Year Of The Horse(men) In New Jersey?

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In the past few years, a $3 million evening handle for the Meadowlands Racetrack has become an elusive target during the winter meet.

But this year, that has all changed, leaving horsemen hoping that happy days are here again in East Rutherford.

In 2017, the only $3 mm nights at the Meadowlands during January and February came in the first two Fridays of the season. Last year, there were several nights reaching $2.7 mm or $2.8 mm – but none could crack the $3 mm barrier.

This winter, the $2.9 mm mark was reached on Feb. 1, followed by $3.1 mm and $3.2 mm on Feb. 2 and Feb. 16 respectively, with four other marks of $2.9 mm in February.

March often brings higher numbers, such as the $3.5 mm handle on the first Saturday of that month last year. But last Saturday one-upped that figure, to $3.6 mm.

With purses now increasing for many races as a result of state approval of a $20 mm annual purse subsidy this year, how high can it go?

Track owner Gural likes what he sees

“I think everyone was upbeat, sensing that the Big M was going to regain its luster as the No. 1 harness track in the world,” Meadowlands track owner Jeff Gural, not exactly known as a cockeyed optimist, told NJ Online Gambling.

Mark Ford, president of the Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association, talked about “a buzz in the air” among horsemen and overall followers of the sport.

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“It seems like everybody wants to race at the Meadowlands, but some just couldn’t afford to do it,” said Ford, referring to larger purses at northeast tracks with much larger purse subsidies from slot machine revenues on the grounds. “We had a full box [of entries]last week and again this week; people are excited.”

Both Gural and Ford referred to the fact that Gural is not shy about banning trainers or owners found to have used unfair tactics to boost their horses’ chances as a net positive influence on more reputable horsemen.

“You want to feel like you can win,” said Ford, who was less enthusiastic last fall.

There have been a variety of factors producing a tailwind for Meadowlands racing – mostly reasonable winter weather, an increase in younger drivers creating more competitive cards, and even rival harness track Yonkers Raceway canceling its card last Saturday. (Yonkers Raceway is under the new MGM management, which recently replaced the diehard Rooney family as owners.)

Live handle the only downer

It should be noted that live handle – the amount bet by customers at the Meadowlands on Meadowlands races – was down about 10%, to $268,000, compared to the first Saturday of March 2018. But the “export” – the amount of money bet outside the building by 4NJBets customers and simulcasting bettors from all over – provided more than enough of an offset to produce the biggest overall number of the past three winters.

“The real test begins next week when Pocono opens [the Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono on March 16], and then Chester [Harrah’s Philadelphia, on March 29],” Gural said. “But the mood is upbeat.”

The Chester course again will soon vie for horses with the Meadowlands on Fridays, while the Pocono site goes head-on with The Big M on Saturdays.

The good vibes even extend to the New Jersey thoroughbred side, though it is months away from resuming racing at Monmouth Park.

Operator Dennis Drazin tells bloodhorse.com that typical race-day purse totals will rise from about $300,000 to $500,000, and that track officials are fielding “a lot of calls” from horsemen who want to move their mares back to the state as a result of Jersey-bred bonuses that are one feature of the subsidy.

Monmouth Park, where races resume on May 4 and now extend well into October, gets $10 mm of the $20 mm subsidy for the year.

Editorial credit: EQRoy / Shutterstock.com

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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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