06/23/2014 11:46AM

Bergman: Time for a schedule change

Derick Giwner
Meadowlands is currently racing on Fridays and Saturdays in June.

Historians could have predicted some seven years ago when Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs’ slot machines began churning that a ripple effect would ensue. In close proximity to the Meadowlands and not that far away from another harness-slot property in Chester, the lure of solid purse money was bound to attract horses and horsemen to cross state lines to participate.

Now as horsemen have moved and taken horses with them, the Meadowlands, once the drawing card for every horse, trainer and owner, tries to put together just two days of racing a week.

Historians wouldn’t be surprised that the track is hardly struggling to find top echelon drivers, but instead is at a loss to put on weekend cards that fit the rich history of the premier property in the standardbred sport.

The overpopulation of C-2 events on weekends with a boatload of Freehold-style horses and drivers has been the single biggest change that the New Meadowlands has had to deal with in its short history, and clearly the options are becoming even more limited.

[DRF HARNESS: LIKE us on Facebook and get timely updates on the latest harness news]

Though this past weekend saw more than its share of longshots prevail in these bottom-basement races, as a whole there have been too many half-mile track Freehold types mixed in with mile track specialists. The results have meant many imbalanced fields more befitting the old Sunday afternoon programs at East Rutherford than the stellar cards that once attracted the cream of the crop to the Garden State.

The argument has been made by some, and certainly from this point of view, that the Meadowlands would be much better served to card these June dates throughout the winter as opposed to battle four weeks of stakes action at Pocono and Mohawk with regular drivers out of town on assignment and the Meadowlands a shell of its old self.

The counter to that recommendation has always been that “we can’t do the same kind of business on a Wednesday or Thursday in January as we do on a Friday or Saturday in June.”

While the direct comparison appears to make perfect sense, it comes via a narrow focus on the short-run handle and not necessarily on the overall product year-round the Meadowlands is capable of producing.

But first let’s at least look at some facts and ask the questions that need to be asked.

Why can’t the Meadowlands race more dates in January and fewer in June?

“We don’t have the purse money,” is the first answer received whenever this subject is broached.

That’s right. Purse money continues to be overpaid in June for C-2 events that really don’t pass muster as Meadowlands-quality races. Why not allow a wider range of bottom feeders the opportunity to race on Wednesdays and Thursday in the winter while paying them appropriately? While not producing the same handles as June, the track would be conserving purse money and putting on a more continuous program over the winter.

Rescheduling to January and February will increase the horse supply, offering racing secretary Peter Koch the actual chance to put together fields that he could be proud of, as opposed to piecing non-Meadowlands horses into the kind of races we’ve seen over the last month. Koch needs to be given a raise just for the sheer bravery in facing such difficult times with his head on straight and the fortitude to create something respectable.

At the same time, Meadowlands upper management may be wise or at least wiser than they’ve been in understanding and finally accepting the facts that became apparent seven years ago. Fewer and fewer quality horses are available and will be available to complete fields at the Meadowlands this summer and the next summers. That’s true as well because fewer horses are now being bred.

It’s painful to witness a brand new beautiful building next to a racetrack that routinely put out the best product this industry has ever seen. The weekend cards showcased over the last month pale in comparison to even a Tuesday or Wednesday card from 1976.

It’s easy to understand Jeff Gural’s utter frustration and his feeling of abandonment, yet at the same time it’s hard to see how Mr. Gural himself or any of those sharp and talented young minds underneath him refuse to accept what history has been pointing to without making any adjustments to the schedule.

To me it’s extremely short sighted to continue this racing schedule into 2015 without major changes. Even Mr. Gural appears to have accepted that the winter brings out more gambling on this sport. With a modified purse structure on the lower end during the winter, it would be far easier to fill Wednesday and Thursday cards with solid racing. There would be enough classes for Mr. Koch to open up his playbook and bring in classes that routinely don’t fill ever at this time of year.

Final word on Sears

It is not often I sympathize with athletes that make a lot of money, but you have to credit driver Brian Sears for acting with dignity during some very uncomfortable times over the past week. To say he was virtually kicked in the teeth when asked not to participate this past Friday morning in baby races at the Meadowlands would be an understatement. Sears had begged off his drives in some lucrative Sire Stakes races at Yonkers the night before further cutting into his own bottom line. While others were standing in long lines to defend his character, Sears acted the part of someone unwilling to get into the type of name calling the original incident evoked.

In a sport that has had more than its share of a checkered past concerning the effort, or lack thereof of some drivers, Sears and the elite company he keeps nightly in driver colonies throughout the Northeast is indeed a prime example of the best the sport has to offer.

On behalf of all harness fans I’d like to apologize to Brian.


Anonymous More than 1 year ago
solution to the problem is to allow the Meadowlands a balanced playing field. Time to turn it into a Racino and compete with Yonkers and Pocono on a regular basis. I no longer bet the BIG M because it has now become a glorified B Track. I will tune back in on the big days that offer many stake races on a single night. Other than that I pass.
Joel Weiner More than 1 year ago
Well said Jay! Looking at the racing at the Big M now is like now is like putting lipstick on a pig. I want to bet the races but I can't because of the poor fields and questionable driving talent on most nights. Trying to handicap races is difficult enough without factoring in the problem that most of the drivers are terrible, (not talking about Pierce, Tetrick, D. Miller, JC, etc) and inconsistent and we are stuck with bottom rung Freehold style horses without much reliable form. As far as Brian Sears goes, he's one of the guys I will drop a couple of bills on and he usually gives the bettor a run for his money.
AL More than 1 year ago
Its a very tufff position for Gural to be in, He invested alot of money And is stuck with a lower class quality of drivers. Just last week Bongiorno and Baggit validated that live for us with a circus act while driving.. But bully tactics do not work on Gurals part . Sears handled this in a class act manor. Im sorry but i was backing Sears all the way and wouldnt bet my dollar three eighty at the Big M until it was resolved.
Bob Tyler More than 1 year ago
Don't for the life of me get the "elite driver" thing...the thing that drove my away from the Meadowlands and harness racing in general (and I went to Liberty Bell every night/Brandywine and when the Meadowlands opened drove the 1 1/2 hrs. once, twice a week) was the professional catch driver, same 10 guys each race, same movement, etc. etc, etc...I want to look for a positive driver change, back in the day you'd have a horse say ship from Liberty Bell that Jack Smith Jr. or Art Stafford was driving..you'd see them at the Meadowlands with a Ted Wing, Lew Williams or another and bet your money and catch a ticket. Or if those guys went up there and drove them themselves from LB you could throw them out but they'd change the flow or pace of the race because they really didn't know how to drive a mile track, it was up to you to figure out who would adapt and you could've been rewarded handsomely....that is gone now....watch races from Pocono, same guys and EVERY race looks exactly like the one before...don't want to see the same 10 drivers driving every race, chummin' it up and that's why I don't spend any of my $$ or handicapping time on harness racing, it's not worth it anymore, and I was a diehard..I will say though, I did make the drive to the Big M (first time in at least 10 yrs.) in January a beautiful unseasonable Sat. night, a great place, outstanding atmosphere, I'll give them that, they really are trying...but I think fighting an unwinnable losing battle...just my 2 cents....and as I said the driver thing baffles me...............
Jeff Biever More than 1 year ago
Bob, Totally agree with your points. But if you think Pocono has races which seem to duplicate each other, try watching or betting Yonkers-it's even worse !
Bob Tyler More than 1 year ago
Can't help you there Jeff...even when I did bet harness racing as a die hard, never, ever bet 1/2 milers...you could just basically fold the program in half...so I don't even WATCH Yonkers races...LoL....before the old Freehold burned down I used to go there once in a blue moon, but just for a day out, not to seriously bet...didn't touch 1/2 milers..never did...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There is only 1 1/2 mile track that I bet and it's always on the 3rd Thursday In September. Other than that watching Yonkers racing is like watching fish race around in circles at the bottom of a fish bowl. ZZZZZZZZZZZZ...
Ron Rios More than 1 year ago
Liberty Bell, what great memories… hit my first exacta there at age 12...
Jeff Mcintosh More than 1 year ago
Speak for yourself Bergman
Darin Zoccali More than 1 year ago
Jay, Our stakes program along with the Triple Crown limits the nights we can put on these events. There is only one Saturday in all of July that is available and one Saturday in all of May as well. It wouldn't make any sense to have Jerseyfest during The Meadowlands Pace, for example.
Darin Zoccali More than 1 year ago
Thank you for the kind words Steve. We will do out best and we appreciate your support!
Jay Bergman More than 1 year ago
Darin, Never once suggested abandoning cross-promotion. You seem focused on June as the ONLY time you can cross-promote, not sure specifically why that is? June was my focus based on your "Stars" being out of town and racing being distinctly below Meadowlands previous standards.
Steve More than 1 year ago
I think the fundamental difference in this argument is clear. Jay is trying to please people who are already harness racing fans. The regular better who is "educated" when it comes to the racing itself. Darin is trying to please the new customer. As well as lure/expose them to harness racing. I am a regular Saturday night Meadowlands customer. 4 out of 5 Saturday's I'm there betting the card. Seeing these poor Saturday cards is a bit depressing. I look at the entries for Harrah's, Pocono, and Yonkers and they never have less than full fields. Compared to a Saturday in February its tough to compare. I believe it is a necessary evil though. A Wednesday card in January would serve no one but the customers they Meadowlands already has. It would do nothing to expose new people to the sport which is what is desperately needed. Darin is right, the new customer doesn't know the difference between the Caramore or the Cutler. The same way they don't know the difference between Ginsburg and Tetrick. New fans are needed. That is the bottom line and by far the most important factor in all of this. The regular bettor/customer may not always like it but bringing new people in really is the most important thing. Keep up the good work Darin. Keep the attendance high and some people will come back. That needs to be the entire industries goal, not just he Meadowlands.
Darin Zoccali More than 1 year ago
Jay, You are still failing to recognize the most important aspect of the entertainment part of what we do. We can cross-promote it with the racing, which creates new customers, which is vital for the industries survival. You mention that our current plan is short-sided, but on the contrary, we believe the exact opposite. It seems that we are at an impasse here and will have to agree to disagree.
Blaine MacMillan More than 1 year ago
The industry's survival will happen when the Meadowlands gets slots...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I would be in heaven if the Big M gets slots and gets back to glory days. Jeff has done a great job with what little he has at his finger tips. Unfortunately it's like trying to pass off Guppies as Great Whites