Right there on page 144 of the 280-page New Jersey budget document that was approved by state lawmakers on Thursday is this line:
Horse Racing Purse Subsidies .................. (15,000,000)
That looks pretty good for the state thoroughbred and standardbred industries — except a state law passed in 2019 calls for $20 million annually to supplement such purses, subject to evidence that the subsidy directly leads to more revenue for the state’s racetracks and thus makes it a worthwhile investment for taxpayers.
But fear not. One just needs to know where to look.
In a Senate bill introduced on Monday, another $5 million for the horsemen is part of more than $100 million in “supplemental appropriations” from the state’s General Fund.
The entire package is supposed to be signed into law by next week’s annual deadline by Gov. Phil Murphy, who already has reached an agreement with state Democratic lawmakers on such budget details.
Not a bonanza, but it helps
The subsidy still pales in comparison to the nine-figure subsidies that horse racing tracks in neighboring Pennsylvania and New York get, but the Meadowlands Racetrack, Monmouth Park, and Freehold Raceway have figured out ways to get by since the first two tracks in particular were privatized a decade ago.
That came as a result of then-Gov. Chris Christie’s sentiment that after years of a multimillion-dollar annual purse boost turned over by once-thriving Atlantic City casinos to the tracks, the latter needed to prove they could survive on their own, or they deserved to perish.
That led to the New Jersey Thoroughbred’s Horsemen’s Association taking over Monmouth Park, and to real estate mogul and horseman Jeff Gural taking over operations of the Meadowlands site. Freehold continues to be run jointly by Penn National and Greenwood Racing.
As the COVID-19 pandemic raged last year, the subsidy was trimmed to $15 million — which likely is why the main budget document offers the same. But a supplemental figure balances out the support to the scheduled $20 million.
In the tumult of a delayed budget last summer, initially the horsemen were to get no subsidy at all.
That led Gural to state, “It’s a disaster for the industry and would be catastrophic, no two ways about it. It would cost thousands of jobs and be devastating for breeders.”
Ultimately, the 75% subsidy last year proved sufficient for all three tracks to keep business as close to usual as one could expect given the lockdown conditions.
Because horses need constant care from humans regardless of whether they run around a track or not, the sport was able, within strict health safety protocols, to maintain its racing schedules far closer to normal than traditional sports could manage — sending many gamblers to “play the ponies” if they didn’t want to settle instead for wagering on Russian and Ukrainian table tennis.
Murphy has turned out to be far friendlier to the horsemen, saying in 2019 that “New Jersey’s horse racing industry is a key economic engine, supporting thousands of jobs and attracting tourists and fans from around the world.
“Our state has a long and proud history of horse racing and we must recapture our competitive edge in the industry. With this funding, New Jersey can continue to offer one of the most exciting horse racing experiences in the nation, while also providing a boost to an industry that is integral to our economy.”
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