When the New Jersey Senate unanimously passed a horse racing subsidy bill in mid-December, it seemed as if the struggling industry would be able to take its first collective deep breaths in a decade.
But even though no political opposition has surfaced against the plan to provide $20 million annually to horsemen over the next five years, the state Assembly has yet to act.
And time, it appears, is running out.
“Breeders need to know now if they should breed in New Jersey, and owners need to make stakes payments by Feb. 15,” Meadowlands Racetrack operator Jeff Gural told NJ Online Gambling on Tuesday. “So the Jan. 31 date is critical — we are screwed without the subsidy.”
Meanwhile, at Monmouth Park …
While the Meadowlands standardbred racing calendar runs on Fridays and Saturdays from January through July, Monmouth Park’s thoroughbred racing schedule is basically a summer meet.
That makes the vote delay that is a crisis for Gural more an inconvenience — so far — for Monmouth operator Dennis Drazin.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that there is a vote on Jan. 31,” Drazin said, referring to a state Legislature day with votes on dozens of state Senate and Assembly bills scheduled.
Drazin said his Oceanport track’s schedule tentatively will begin on Kentucky Derby weekend in May and go through September, with its 68 dates a slight uptick from last year.
But passage of the subsidy would open the door for the possibility of more dates, including some at the Meadowlands this fall.
What’s the holdup?
It’s not quite clear why this bill hasn’t already passed.
“There has been some talk about fine tuning of the bill, but I’m not sure,” said South Jersey Assemblyman John Burzichelli. “We have gotten the version from the Senate, and we may just vote on that.”
Asked if the Jan. 31 vote target — late next week — is realistic, Burzichelli replied, “Not by the 31st, but certainly in February.”
Still, Burzichelli, a key supporter of the proposal in the Assembly, said he hopes it moves as quickly as possible. The challenge is that the Assembly must first hold a public hearing in a committee before getting to a final vote of the full Assembly.
“We’re trying to get the formula right for the state budget, but we give a lot of incentives to industries,” Burzichelli said. “There is a lot of value to the state in keeping the horse racing industry working. This is a good investment to get them as healthy as possible.”
Asked if he hears much from the horsemen’s concerns, Burzichelli said, “We’re aware of it,” adding that he is in regular contact with them.
Spreading out the subsidy
The bill stalled last fall in the shadow of a fallout between Gural and the standardbred horsemen over the distribution of newfound revenue from legal sports betting.
But in early December, an agreement was reached that would divert at least $1 mm annually to racing purses for each of the next 10 years.
The current division of funds for the $20 mm annual state subsidy would be $6 mm for Meadowlands purses, $1.6 mm for Freehold Raceway purses, $10 mm for Monmouth Park, and $2.4 mm distributed for in-state breeder awards and stakes bonuses.
It’s possible either that there are forces among those groups seeking a bigger slice, or that the $100 mm over five years is a big pill to swallow for some Assembly members. The Press of Atlantic City ran an editorial on Dec. 27 that might have added to those concerns.
But it’s now about time for state lawmakers to reach a decision on a bill that is critical to the longterm fate of the industry. And given the Meadowlands track’s traditional status as the epicenter of harness racing in North America, and Monmouth Park’s status on the thoroughbred side, eyes will be on this issue from parts far beyond just the Garden State.
It would be a shame if inertia won the day over an actual vote, leading to cutbacks at the Meadowlands and eventually stalling Monmouth Park’s 2019 goals.