New Jersey Racetracks Stuck In Limbo During Coronavirus Lockdown

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Thoroughbred racing is currently occurring at only a handful of U.S. racetracks and, in each case, with no fans in attendance.

But within two weeks, similar racing is scheduled to resume at West Virginia racetracks, at Santa Anita Park in California, and at Churchill Downs in Kentucky.

And what about New Jersey? Operators of all three racetracks must await guidance from the administration of Gov. Phil Murphy, who, like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has the COVID-19 pandemic as his top priority.

The stakes are highest at the Meadowlands Racetrack, which in many respects is still the most iconic harness racing track in the world and the host of The Hambletonian — the sport’s biggest day — every summer.

As it happens, there are no states with standardbred racing these days, Meadowlands track operator Jeff Gural told NJ Online Gambling.

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That means that his track, which had switched to a schedule of nearly year-round racing, could be the center of that sport’s universe if racing could be offered.

“We have requested that the governor consider allowing us to resume racing without spectators,” Gural said. “We have worked out a set of procedures to keep it safe.”

The only game in town?

The potential windfall of an imminent reopening ahead of the rest of the industry was part of the proposal, Gural said.

“But the administration wants to be cautious, and I don’t blame them,” Gural said, given that North Jersey and Bergen County in particular, where the track is located, have been decimated by the COVID-19 virus.

While Gural appreciates the dilemma facing Murphy, he also hears dire reports from his colleagues in an industry that has suffered its own series of tragic losses from the virus.

“The horsemen are starving, literally,” said Gural. “They’re desperate. They can’t work from home. The horses lead to the same expenses whether they are racing or not.

“Another point we made is that the workers who would be at the track for racing already are working with the horses in their barns anyway,” Gural added. “We’re not bringing in people who otherwise would be sitting at home.”

Holding races without warmups is not particularly appealing to Gural, a horse owner himself. But he said he and other horsemen “just want to race,” so compromises would be considered.

New York state of mind

Gural also owns Vernon Downs and Tioga Downs in upstate New York, so he is monitoring that state as well.

Cuomo has suggested in recent days that he might allow some counties north of the state capital in Albany to stage limited reopenings of businesses as soon as May 15. That’s because more than 50 of the state’s 67 counties have had relatively small numbers of COVID-19 cases.

“The problem there is that so much of the purse money comes from [slot machines],” said Gural, referring to hundreds of millions derived from transfer of a portion of the gambling revenue at each “racino” complex.

“We’d have to work something out with the horsemen, but I’m a little optimistic in New York,” Gural said.

Monmouth Park not the same as Meadowlands

The schedule at Monmouth Park isn’t the only significant difference between the state’s two largest racetracks.

That thoroughbred track, which had its opening date postponed initially from May 2 to May 23 and now until July 3, also houses a full “colony” of horses. The Meadowlands, meanwhile, ships in horses from other locations on the day of the horse’s race.

Even with a longer time horizon, track operator Dennis Drazin told NJ Online Gambling that he is preparing for the possibility of racing without spectators.

“We should be cautious, because people are dying from this virus,” Drazin said.

While other thoroughbred tracks are scrambling to reopen as soon as possible, Drazin said his schedule could prove to be an advantage.

Since Monmouth Park was closed all winter, Drazin said it takes “a few weeks” to get the track and site back in racing condition.

A resurgent racing purse plan — boosted both by a $10 million subsidy from the state and now what would be a condensed racing schedule — led to 2,500 applications by horsemen for the track’s 1,600 stalls.

The horses are scheduled to be shipped in starting June 1, and Drazin said he expects most of the horses to be on the premises soon thereafter. That also means the presence of thousands of seasonal workers who even at that point will likely be required to take “social distancing” precautions.

Drazin added that after speaking with Gural this week, he has some hope that the annual handful of thoroughbred dates that happen at the Meadowlands each year perhaps could take place on the turf this year in June — if that track has reopened by then.

Freehold also in limbo

The scenario at Freehold Raceway is less complicated because the track’s early-season meet was to end on May 22 anyway, so that portion of the schedule already seems lost.

The next racing date is not set until late August.

“That will be the new target, and we will have to see what the parameters will be in terms of how we conduct our business,” said longtime Freehold Raceway executive Chris McErlean.

As for the notion of “getting rich quick” from an early return, McErlean said it’s not likely to be quite that simple.

“There have been some impressive numbers posted by the limited tracks that have been open for the past month or so,” McErlean said. “But some additional tracks are coming on the calendar, and since wagering is [off-track] right now, that means the market is somewhat finite.

“It might just mean that the existing dollars get redistributed, and the potential handle upside is not as great,” he added.

Photo by Mikhail Pogosov / 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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