03/26/2015 11:39PM

Giwner: Jeff Gural, the man and his missions

Derick Giwner
Meadowlands operator Jeff Gural freely admits that he is his own worst enemy.

Jeff Gural is perhaps the most criticized individual in harness racing. The head of the Meadowlands, Tioga and Vernon is equally deserving and undeserving of the public ire. 

Most will agree that Gural swooped in at the eleventh hour and saved the Meadowlands from disaster, but those same people have grown tired of hearing about it over and over. They applauded him a few years back and have since washed their hands and want to move on. Is that fair to Gural considering his efforts? Therein lies one of the public disagreements between the industry and the often outspoken head honcho. 

Having just completed another impromptu sit-down with Gural, I came away once again seeing that he is equal parts sugar and salt. Joining a crowded club, he is not a perfect man, but at least on the surface desires to see the sport prosper.

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He can be extremely generous and remains one of the few track operators who readily accepts and answers email from ‘Joe Public’. Beyond responses and perhaps from time to time taking the Meadowlands back a step, Gural will even act on customer suggestions to please those who spend their hard-earned dollars on his product. 

On the flip side, say or do something negative and he is likely to snap off a testy reply or take harsh action. Gural acts and reacts as you would expect from any New York-raised man making his way in the world. He is in many respects just a regular guy who happens to be wealthy and own a few racetracks. 

Gural is the only millionaire track owner I know who you can find sitting in the grandstand in shorts and a t-shirt enjoying the races. He is a fan at heart—a man who actually enjoys going to the track to watch racing. Yet he is even ridiculed at times for just that—appearing in the winner's circle without dapper attire. The man was wearing a jacket and tie when I saw him at Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, where he serves as chairman. Doesn't he deserve some down time while he enjoys the races?

A writers best friend in terms of quotes, Gural's recent news cycle focuses around whether 4-year-olds should be forced to race rather than owners given the opportunity to decide their colt’s future. The 72-year-old finds himself on a rock by himself as the only remaining entity (WEG and Hambletonian Society backed out recently) that wants to force owners to keep their horses on the track. Is his the right stance? He thinks so and has been over-the-top vocal about it. 

Ultimately it is an interesting debate. What is best for the sport? While one could argue that top older stars provide some of the most exciting racing and give us the best chance to draw new fans, how can you take the opportunity to maximize income away from an owner? If you can earn $1 million by racing or $10 million by going to stud, what would you want to do?

Owners want the final call and because they pay the bills deserve that right, but do those decisions adversely affect harness racing? The stats don't lie. From 2007 to 2011 all five 3-year-old colt Pacers of the Year retired. Additionally, prior to 2012, you’d be hard-pressed to find more than one or two 3-year-old Trotters of the Year over the previous two decades who took to the track for a third year of racing. Those are telling numbers and it hardly seems like it is simply an issue of lack of money available for 4-year-old and older horses. 

One owner even told me point blank that it doesn’t matter how much is available to be earned as a 4-year-old on the track. If he gets a good horse, he wants to reap the rewards in the breeding shed and try for more champions. He doesn’t want to risk injury or the possibility of reduced value from a poor on-track performance.

One of the greatest controversies surrounding Gural is his one-man war against suspected "drug" trainers. Seemingly alone in his quest (as usual), Gural has banned multiple trainers (perhaps dozens?) from competing at his three tracks. While some applaud his courage to take on such a mission while it clearly hurts business by keeping his available horse population low, others scold him for being brash enough to ban whoever he sees fit.

Gural explained that he continues to stand his ground on keeping his tracks as drug-free as possible because when he is gone years from now he wants people to remember that he at least he made an effort to do the right thing. Agree or disagree, you have to admire anyone willing to lose money to do what they believe is proper.

Ultimately, Gural’s multi-year venture at the Meadowlands comes down to one thing—a casino license. He has never made any qualms about the possibility of getting a casino being one of the reasons he bought the Meadowlands and more than a year after his $90-plus million grandstand was built, he sees the casino as his only savoir.

“I have to get a casino license,” said Gural, who did add that perhaps there was additional money to be made at the Meadowlands via catering parties and affairs.

“I don’t think there is anything I can do to get people to the track anymore because we don’t exist. If we are not going to promote and not going to go on TV, even with a $5 billion slot subsidy from the government, we can’t survive,” said Gural bluntly.

“I got news for you, in 10 years if there are no changes, do you know what the purses will be? Double, because the number of races will be half. The number of horses being bred will be half. There is no one to sell yearlings to. We all lose money on yearlings. There is just a small group of people who buy all the yearlings,” said Gural.

Speaking with Gural, he is almost like two different people. At times he is a soft-spoken man that doesn’t say much. He almost seems beaten when discussing the prospects of the survival and future of racing, but still retains a faint glimmer of optimism that is ready to flourish if given the proper nourishment. Then there is the fiery New Yorker that explodes from within whenever you get to a topic he is passionate about.

At the heart of it all, I believe, Gural remains driven by his desire to do what he believes is right and to see the sport that he remembers as a thriving industry from his younger days reemerge from a deep slumber. While some in the business may struggle with right and wrong, he shoots from the cuff and listens to his heart. Often enough, admittedly, he is his own worst enemy. But even though he is aware his words can cause him more harm than good, he simply can’t help himself.

Should a casino ever be awarded to the Meadowlands and Gural, he will have the opportunity to offer the largest purses in North America, increase what is already the largest stakes program going, and perhaps make some bold moves in customer retention and acquisition via takeout reduction.

We can only dream about what could happen in the future. Until that moment arrives or it is stricken from reality, Gural will hopefully keep the faith and continue to do what he thinks is right. Ultimately, when all is said and done, the public can make a final determination about the man and his mission.

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