Meadowlands Racetrack: Reviewing The First Weekend Back

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For Meadowlands Racetrack operator Jeff Gural, last weekend’s resumption of live racing for the first time since mid-March — although without fans in attendance — was absolutely uncharted territory.

“There were tracks that had huge handles when they were among the few racing, but now maybe two-thirds of tracks are back racing,” Gural told NJ Online Gambling. “So we had no idea what to expect.”

As it turned out, both nights produced “business as usual” betting levels.

On Friday, $2.88 million was wagered, slightly topping Saturday’s handle of $2.74 million, when Gural notes that the track faced stiffer competition.

A handle of $2.5 million for the Meadowlands has become almost a given in recent years, and these were the eighth and ninth consecutive tallies above that figure as well as 14 such handles out of the last 15 cards. But $3 million tends to be elusive unless almost all of the stars align.

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“Everything I’m hearing is positive — for the most part, people followed the rules and we had our systems in place,” Gural said. “Drivers waited in their cars between races.”

Masks mandatory

Camaraderie among horsemen during those dormant times generally is quite high, but racing in a pandemic is forcing new patterns.

Gural noted that one adjustment in particular proved challenging.

“The fact is, it’s not natural to wear a mask,” Gural said. “So any time anyone lowered it down, they were reminded to put it back on.”

Gural said he is fortunate to own a racetrack in New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy has approved a resumption of racing — in contrast to Pennsylvania, where the sport might not return until next month.

“We have a governor who understands the sport and who recognizes the impact horse racing has on open space in New Jersey,” Gural said. “I don’t think the Pennsylvania governor (Tom Wolf) is a big fan of horse racing.”

Both evenings featured 13-race cards with full fields, and Gural said the absence of racing in Pennsylvania led to “hundreds” of horses being submitted to race.

Outdoor dining at Meadowlands?

Restaurants in New Jersey will be permitted next week to offer outdoor dining — within strict protocols that include social distancing. Gural said he is eyeing tally COVID-19 tallies in the state to see if that could work at his track.

“We’re monitoring how much progress is being made, and hopefully we’ll be able to utilize our outdoor areas,” Gural said. “People are a lot more comfortable being outdoors, and the disease seems less transmittable.”

The track features a Backyard BBQ& Grill and Backyard Bar as well as Victory Terrace, a rooftop site with panoramic views of Manhattan.

Only “essential racing personnel” are permitted to be on-site on race nights, so Gural was asked if he attended — or if he could.

“I did not go to the track, although I suppose I could have,” Gural said. “But I’m 77, so I am staying in upstate New York. For me, going to the track would usually mean having a good meal with friends, but we can’t really do that yet.”

“So that means it’s more fun for me to watch the races on TV,” Gural said. “You could tell there was no one there, but it’s a lot better than nothing. Now I just wish we could have baseball.”

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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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