But New York-based real estate mogul and harness racing owner Jeff Gural says the bad news is that the new revenue still isn’t enough to ensure the track’s long-term survival. That’s even with a temporary windfall coming this year due to New York elected officials failing to act after the historic May 14 U.S. Supreme Court ruling paving the way for any state to offer the Las Vegas-style gambling.
Still, when you listen to Gural describe the track’s tenuous plight early in the Governor Christie administration, the current difficulties seem a little less daunting.
Meadowlands Racetrack’s near-death experience
It was in the middle of a Dec. 2010 work week at Meadowlands Racetrack when Gural got a call telling him that Christie was on the verge of closing its iconic Meadowlands track.
“I thought it was a joke — why would anybody think it was a good idea to close it?” Gural told NJOnlineGambling.com. “Then I was told the closing would be announced on Friday. I suggested I could go down and at least meet with the governor’s people. At first they told me, ‘Bring a check for $10 million, or don’t even bother coming [to the governor’s office in Trenton].”
Gural said that state officials then relented slightly, so he made the trip.
“We negotiated a deal on a yellow piece of paper, and that gave me 90 days to figure things out,” Gural said.
One major challenge: negotiate with unions to trim costs to reflect the diminished annual revenues for a track that four decades ago drew an average of 18,000 patrons a night for five nights of racing.
That meant cutting expenses from $40 million to $20 million, for instance — partly by cutting the racing schedule of nearly 150 dates in half. Another was an across-the-board 20 percent pay cut for tellers.
It worked — at least as far as survival of the track.
“I think had the Meadowlands closed, that harness racing would have died right there,” Gural said, given The Big M’s iconic status. “My hobby would have been over.”
Gural also owns two upstate New York tracks — Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs — as well as a breeding farm, so the Meadowlands’ fate had broad interest for him.
Track operator’s life-long love for horse racing
“When I was in high school, horse racing was huge — bigger than baseball and football, even — and I grew up near Roosevelt Raceway,” the 75-year-old Gural said. “We’d go in and either pretend we were 18 or get someone older to make a bet for us.”
Gural said he preferred standardbred, or harness, racing because the unvarying distance of 1 mile for each race and the similar conditions made it easier to handicap and pick winners.
By the time he was 30, Gural was a horse owner as well. A few years later, the Meadowlands track opened in 1976. Gural was a regular there from the earliest days.
“When it opened, that was the place to be,” Gural said. “It was brand new, and it had an air about it.”
But the first Atlantic City casino opened in 1978, soon followed by almost a dozen more. The state lottery also began to grow exponentially in that era, leading to a long, slow decline in horse racing attendance and revenues.
A compromise with the casinos lasted nearly a decade: the casinos — which boomed until Pennsylvania and New York began luring back its residents with their own casinos and racinos in 2006 — provided $30 million in annual racing purse subsidies to guarantee that New Jersey would not follow neighboring states in bringing slot machines to the tracks.
But Christie — not a believer in subsidies, and wary of state taxpayers also ponying up tens of millions of dollars as well to keep the tracks afloat — decided both the Meadowlands and Monmouth Park, its thoroughbred track, had to go.
Gural steps in to save track
Having just witnessed the demise of the New York City OTB sites weeks earlier, Gural recognized the urgency of saving the Meadowlands.
Eight years later, Gural is disappointed that there still is no casino at the Meadowlands Sports Complex — in spite of his once offering half of the revenues to the state, which he estimated could provide $500 million annually to the state treasury. A 2016 referendum on North Jersey casinos was crushed at the polls, thanks to a vaguely worded ballot question that didn’t even include potential sites or a tax rate — as well as a well-funded advertising campaign by Atlantic City and New York gambling interests to tie the vote to unpopular Trenton lawmakers.
Gural, whose midtown Manhattan real estate ties and upstate track ownership interests have left him finely attuned to New York state politics, admits to being surprised that the legislature there ended its session without action on sports betting (four upstate New York casinos may have on-site betting by the end of the year, but that is due to previously passed legislation).
“I thought they would get something done, frankly,” Gural said. “It’s such a gift to us. They’re going to look foolish when the football season starts.”
Gural projects that online sports betting will be part of a New York budget bill next spring, and that the Aqueduct and Yonkers racetracks will eventually evolve from slots parlors to full-fledged casinos.
As for sports betting at his racetrack, Gural said much of the new revenue will refund him for the several million dollars of his own spending that he has laid out annually since taking over operations.
Meadowlands needs more money
But Gural says that he needs an additional $10 million per year from the state to truly compete with the tracks in neighboring states that have slots-revenue-padded purses.
“There aren’t enough [standardbred]horses to race in the Northeast anymore,” Gural said. “If I don’t hear anything by Oct. 1, we would have to announce far fewer dates for next spring.”
The irony is that Gural expects that the state’s thoroughbred horsemen — the ones who fought alongside Christie in the long court battle that finally is bringing sports betting to the Garden State — will ask for more racing dates at the Meadowlands next year.
But for fans of Meadowlands harness racing, it appears that another, yet-unforeseen solution will be needed — beyond just Gural’s big gamble in 2010 and the advent of sports betting at the track.