NJ Horsemen Reflect On Purse Subsidy Drama As Finish Line Looms

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The longstanding melodrama over a proposed $20 million annual purse subsidy for New Jersey’s struggling horse racing industry was a saga that most of those impacted no doubt would have preferred be less, well, dramatic.

But now that the subsidy heads toward the trophy ceremony — after a signature comes from Gov. Phil Murphy that locks in the money for 2019 — the horsemen finally can breathe a sigh of relief.

“I barely have any fingernails left,” Mark Ford, the president of the Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association of New Jersey told NJ Online Gambling. “I guess I learned a lot about New Jersey politics. Watching that [voting]board and seeing which way the votes were going was really something.”

Less than 10 days ago, Ford said he felt “hopeful, but not that confident” that the Assembly would follow the Senate’s lead from mid-December and pass the bill. But late last week, the Assembly, with only four “nays,” voted its approval to go to Murphy’s desk.

That culminated — almost — a saga that began gaining steam the minute that Murphy was elected in November 2017 (although the Monmouth County roots of Republican opponent Kim Guadagno also might have worked in the horsemen’s favor).

Murphy, of course, succeeded Chris Christie, who privatized the horse racing industry, turning over the Meadowlands Racetrack and Monmouth Park to horsemen, after taking office in 2009. The horsemen have hung on, hoping for a moment like this.

The complicated political road

Initially, there was talk of the bill perhaps passing the Legislature in late June 2018, before the lawmakers’ two-month break. But it ultimately took until last September for a state Senate bill to be formally introduced.

Then some conflict between the horsemen and Meadowlands Racetrack operator Jeff Gural last fall over how to divvy up newfound legal sports betting revenue seemed to put the brakes on the subsidy bill. As often is the case in Trenton, lawmakers want loopholes taken care of before they address related legislation.

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By early December, an agreement had been reached that brings at least $1 million annually to Meadowlands racing purses — not as much as the $6 mm portion of the subsidy plan, but every little bit helps these days.

Quickly, by legislative standards, that led to a unanimous vote in the state Senate. But over on the Assembly side, there were questions — and, ultimately, amendments.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and some other elected officials were wary of the five-year, $100 million proposed appropriation for the horsemen.

And when the bill hit the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Jan. 28, Democrat Gary Schaer, one of the two Assembly members representing the Meadowlands district, raised a question of how long the state should consider backstopping a struggling industry.

It’s ‘prove it or lose it’ for horsemen

So the compromise is that not only does the money have to be approved each year, the horsemen must show tangible ways in which the tax dollars boosted the industry’s overall fortunes. If legislators are not satisfied, they can reduce the annual subsidy, or even eliminate it entirely.

That draws no objections from Ford.

“So this is basically seed money,” Ford said. “We can’t just count our chickens. Hopefully the bill is signed in a couple of weeks, and in the meantime we have a lot of work to do.”

Ford said that racing stakes payments are due this month from the standardbred owners, and this news should boost that bottom line. But he said with many owners and others in the industry mapping out their plans up to a year in advance, other upgrades may not be seen overnight.

New Jersey already has the best trotting stallions, Ford said, adding that perhaps the pacing side of that business might be revived now as well.

“This whole thing has been a monumental accomplishment,” Ford said. “It seemed like around every corner, there was always another obstacle, and that until last week, it could have gone either way.

“I’ve gotten an unbelievable amount of phone calls since the vote. This is such a shot of adrenaline for the horse racing community. I haven’t seen this much enthusiasm in quite some time.”

Still, some of the standardbred racing calendar remains in flux. On Tuesday, Gural announced that a pair of Grand Circuit events — the Governors’ Cup 2-year-old colt pace and Three Diamonds 2-year-old filly pace — had been canceled. As for current overnight purses, those “will be increased immediately after the [subsidy]bill is signed.”

On the NJ thoroughbred side

Gural tells us that the fall thoroughbred meet at his track will be limited to turf racing again this year.

“But next year, they will resume racing on the dirt for a three-month meet,” Gural said.

Dennis Drazin, who operates Monmouth Park for those thoroughbred horsemen, said 2020 could entail something like 20 dates of racing at the Meadowlands from the start of October until mid-December. For this year, look for seven dates up in East Rutherford this fall (an eighth date goes as the Far Hills Race Meeting, a century-old steeplechase event that debuted legal race betting last year).

Drazin said the pending increased purses from the subsidy will encourage some thoroughbred breeders to have mares drop their foals in New Jersey this year, knowing there is the potential for at least four more years of additional subsidies.

“I think we’ll hit our benchmarks,” Drazin said.

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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