By 2018, the Meadowlands Racetrack clearly needed a shot in the arm from somewhere.
In the first half of that year, 539 harness races went off on 52 race cards for a total handle of $110.1 million — an average of $2.1 million wagered per card and $204,367 per race. That was well off traditional norms for the track.
In the first half of 2021, meanwhile, a total of $169 million was wagered on 51 programs, this time with 660 races. Even with the uptick in races, that worked out to an average daily handle of $3.3 million and a handle per race of $256,302.
So what happened?
Two key “shots in the arm” is what happened.
Sports betting + purse supplements = winning formula
First, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in May 2018 striking down a federal law banning most sports betting outside of Nevada set up the first betting at the Meadowlands Racetrack’s FanDuel Sportsbook just two months later.
As of 2021, that led to a $1 million purse supplement for races.
Second, an overall five-year, $100 million subsidy to the state’s equine industry was signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy in February 2019. Of that figure, $6 million annually goes to supplement Big M purses, subject to yearly renewal by Trenton lawmakers.
By 2019, the nightly handle for the first half of the year climbed to $2.7 million.
And even with the COVID-19 pandemic severely limiting attendance and also cutting the number of racing dates almost in half, that nightly handle of $2.7 million was matched, with per-race handle dropping only from $213,592 to $211,009.
“So often, it’s hard to quantify results,” said Meadowlands Racetrack General Manager Jason Settlemoir. “In this case, it’s obvious that the pandemic knocked us down in 2020, since we were able to conduct only 29 programs through the first half of the year. It’s also obvious that New Jersey racing has gotten back up and put up giant numbers during 2021.”
Settlemoir credited state officials for the rebound.
“It is also obvious how far New Jersey and the Meadowlands have come with the help of Governor Murphy and the New Jersey State Legislature,” said Settlemoir. “Total handle and handle per program through June 30 have increased more than 50 percent since 2018.”
That annual subsidy was recently renewed by the legislature.
Good start to second half of 2021
Even with a holiday weekend leaving some bettors with other things to do, Saturday’s handle checked in at $3.1 million — the 26th time in 27 Saturdays that the $3 million mark has been topped.
Friday’s handle on a 13-race card totaled $2,690,444.
That sets up a busy summer at the venerable racetrack, one of the world’s iconic harness racing sites since it opened in 1976.
Saturday will feature a “BBQ Fest” with a dozen or so food trucks offering treats such as empanadas, Italian ices, ice cream, Latin fare, kettle corn, and of course a bevy of smoked meats.
It will also feature eliminations for the upcoming Meadowlands Pace.
That event — harness racing’s biggest night of the year — arrives on July 17 as the best 3-year-old pacers compete in the Meadowlands Pace while $2.5 million is on the line for the evening in a series of stakes races for pacers and for trotters. Note the special first post-time of 6:05 p.m.
Also this month, a free 30-year-and-under handicapping contest is designed to attract that younger demographic on July 24 by featuring a $5,000 prize pool for the top five finishers in the age group. It’s free corn for everyone, meanwhile, during the “Corntastic” weekend of July 23-24.
A Seafood Festival on July 31, with a raw bar and more food trucks and a Chowder Cookoff, will be paired with 3-year-old trotters competing in Hambletonian elimination races.
Hambletonian tops them all
What Meadowlands Racetrack folks — and many others — call “the greatest day in harness racing” takes place on Saturday, Aug. 7, with the running of the $1 million Hambletonian.
More than $3.5 million in purse money will be awarded as top trotters and pacers compete in a variety of stakes races. Doors open at 10 a.m., and the first race takes off at noon. The timing has made the event popular for decades for families including youngsters.
Admission is $5, which as always includes a commemorative Hambletonian baseball cap for adults. Children will receive horse-branded sunglasses. Live music, carnival rides and games, pony rides, food trucks, and a Hambletonian “best hat” contest for the fashion-minded all are back for the 96th running of the event, which has been held at the Meadowlands since 1981.
Then, after seven months of non-stop Friday and Saturday racing cards, the track will be quiet for the next three weekends.
Live racing resumes for a full slate of weekend racing cards in September, then will be held from Oct. 22-Dec. 18, including the Breeders Crown races on Oct. 29-30. With Christmas falling on a Saturday this year, that weekend also will be “dark” before a New Year’s Eve return for a Friday card.