Federal and state guidelines being put in place in an attempt to limit the revival of the COVID-19 pandemic in New Jersey did not seem to have an impact on the large crowd that gathered on Saturday for the 96th running of The Hambletonian at the Meadowlands Racetrack.
The main parking lot at the track filled up hours before the afternoon races for worldwide harness racing’s biggest day. Temperatures were in the low 90s, with a helping breeze making the weather mostly manageable.
Masks were optional for those fully vaccinated, and the bulk of the crowd gathered outside as much for the food trucks, barbecue, adult beverages, kiddie rides, rock music, and atmosphere as for the races themselves.
The vibe was festive, with a shuttle bus driver reminding arrivals that they had parked in “Lot M for ‘Money.'” The $5 admission charge included a complimentary Hambo baseball cap — or sunglasses for the countless youngsters who flock to the event each year.
And while handicapping races was far from front of mind for many, there were plenty in attendance and at home who risked money on the 16-race Hambo Day card.
Betting boom for Hambo
Track officials reported that all-source horse betting handle from this year’s card totaled $6.5 milllion, up more than $750,000 from the 2020 card that included a 2,400-visitor capacity limit due to the pandemic. The handle for the Hambletonian final — won by Captain Corey — was the highest for the race in 11 years, they added.
The $1.1 million wagered on the final was the most since Muscle Massive captured the 2010 Hambletonian and came a year after handle did not quite reach the magic $1 million handle for the race.
The dry Saturday afternoon proved an interesting counterpoint to the prestigious Meadowlands Pace three weeks earlier in somewhat inclement weather. In that case, the $4.5 million handle was actually down about $500,000 from 2020.
The Hambletonian and the Hambletonian Oaks — the race for fillies won by Bella Bellini — were races 14 and 15 this year compared to 11 and 12 last year. The race-by-race handle analysis suggests this adjustment worked well, with $422,000 wagered on the Oaks — perhaps encouraging such a change to become permanent.
While favorites won the two biggest races, there was money to be made on each. Spy Booth (55-1) and Ambassador Hanover (41-1) captured place and show money in the Hambo, with Iteration (45-1) and Contested Hanover (96-1) placing 2-3 in the Oaks.
Gural offers his sentiments
Meadowlands Racetrack owner Jeff Gural gave his annual state-of-the-track interview for the benefit of track visitors and the television audience.
While Gural has pushed for a casino to become part of the Meadowlands Sports Complex since he took over the track more than a decade ago, he had a partial change of tune this time.
“It’s not as necessary as it once was, because of sports betting,” Gural said in an interview with track handicapper Dave Little. “I believe that when the casinos open in New York City — which I believe will be soon, in another year or two — people living in New Jersey will say, ‘Why am I driving over the George Washington Bridge and paying $20 and sitting in traffic, when I could just go to the Meadowlands?’
“So I’m just waiting for those down-state casinos to open in New York and see what the reaction is to people living in northern New Jersey.”
Gural contrasted his experiences with the current governor and his predecessor.
“Without Gov. [Phil] Murphy, we’d be in big trouble,” Gural said, mindful of the $20 million annual subsidy now in place for the industry. “Gov. [Chris] Christie made every effort to put us out of business, and Gov. Murphy has done the exact opposite.
“The legislature has joined with them — [Assembly Speaker] Craig Coughlin has been great, the Senate leaders are great, so it’s been a partnership that has made a huge difference. Our purses are good.
“We were getting crushed, we couldn’t compete. We were racing mediocre horses for mediocre purses and we were hanging by a thread here without their help.
“Christie was a friend of the casino industry, and he believed that you shouldn’t subsidize a business that can’t stand on its own two feet. He didn’t buy into the argument that the casinos have made it more difficult for horse racing to survive because we can’t compete. By the way, the casinos are subsidized — they have a tax rate in New Jersey of eight percent and in Pennsylvania the tax rate is 55 percent. New York, it’s 40 percent.”
Gural said he was grateful, however, that Christie allowed him to take over the track rather than just close the formerly publicly-run facility.