09/02/2013 11:45AM

Jay Bergman: Countdown to the New Meadowlands

Derick Giwner
There's plenty of buzz surrounding the New Meadowlands.

When the New Meadowlands Racetrack opens in November it will mark the birth of a new era for the sport of harness racing. A leaner facility will streamline some of the costs of operation that have hamstrung the facility for years. The smaller building will help facilitate a buzz that was merely an echo of years past in the original grandstand.

It’s an exciting time for harness racing in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Well, that could ring truer if the new building were to feature an expanded menu of harness racing once it opens. That doesn’t appear to be the case, as chairman Jeff Gural has indicated the track will run just 82 live racing programs next year and perhaps 10 thoroughbred programs dedicated to turf racing.

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Thus, a new grandstand for a racetrack will feature live racing on just 25 percent of the days during its first year of existence. Which leads to the question, how can we expect to generate renewed interest in the sport of harness racing when live racing, something the grandstand was dedicated to, will be absent on 75 percent of the racing days and nights?

“We just don’t have the purse money to offer more days,” said Gural when broached on the subject this week.

The irony of that statement is the fact that business at the Meadowlands during its final season in front of the original grandstand had a banner year that few expected but certainly everyone working for the track appreciated.

So why shouldn’t we expect business to improve even that much more with a new building and a new buzz?

The reality, according to Gural, is that a majority of the purse money for standardbred racing is comprised of money from the simulcast business imported into the Meadowlands and not from money wagered outside on the Meadowlands product.

Yet one would think with a $75 million or more investment in a new facility that there would and could be renewed interest in the sport. At the same time, one has to believe that exposure to a live product pulls far more weight towards attracting new fans than simply putting them in front of television screens, no matter how big or modern they may be.

And would it be so risky to add 10-20 dates during the winter, a period of time when there is far less competition for racehorses with Pennsylvania’s premier eastern facilities closed for business?

“We would get killed on Wednesdays,” said Gural about the thought of expanding the winter schedule even one extra day a week.

Yet at the same time, Gural indicated that the track would be open for simulcasting on Wednesdays but not live racing.

Given the new facility and the chance to market a state of the art building, isn’t a genuine opportunity to bring out a new fan base going to escape the Meadowlands, if only for the fact that live racing won’t be its main course?

“We have a huge sports bar that hopefully can be open at night. We plan to try to use the second floor as a nightclub. We are open for simulcasting and I hope to use the building for other things,” said Gural, in response to a question on what the new grandstand would be used for when racing wasn’t taking place.

There lies the essence of what appears to be a dilemma for horsemen and what could be an impediment into broadening an audience that has been contracting for years. How can you call something a racetrack when its primary function is to be something other than a racetrack a large majority of the time?

A nightclub? A Sports Bar? A simulcast outlet?

These are three places that already exist in the real world at various locations. What will make the New Meadowlands Nightclub, Sports Bar or simulcast facility any more appealing than facilities that are already in place and accommodate patrons for said purpose?

If the enormous success of the Meadowlands racing product in 2013 proved one thing it was that a competitive product could attract a betting audience. While finding horses was difficult during the late spring and summer, The Meadowlands filled its cards regularly during the winter. With the potential minimizing of racing opportunities in Ontario this winter and the lack of serious competition for horseflesh from “slot-generated” purse locations, the New Meadowlands shouldn’t have a problem expanding its racing schedule.

What’s more, what if the new facility can generate more on-track handle? Shouldn’t that be the number one goal of all involved?

Horsemen have been asked to sacrifice for the greater good and help the Meadowlands achieve its goal. For the most part the New Meadowlands has received incredible support of the horsemen and they deserve a share of the credit for putting on the show and accepting a “class” system that didn’t always work for some.

While purse money is most definitely a concern and Gural and his team are right to worry about funding added dates, the New Meadowlands will have an extremely difficult time elevating the level of interest in a live product if it can’t operate more often, especially during the winter, a time Gural conceded last year was best for the standardbred sport.

Gural held fast to his belief in the current number of racing dates but offered a glimmer of hope, “If by some miracle the place is packed on the weekends and we are generating significantly more money on the live (programs), we can take another look,” Gural said.

The feeling here is that you have to make your own luck and by limiting the exposure of live harness racing in a brand new facility we may in fact be looking for miracles to revive this sport, at least in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

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Blaine MacMillan More than 1 year ago
Excellent perspective Jay....While I'm one of the many Meadowlands maniacs who is grateful to Mr. Gural for stepping up and saving the only bettable product in harness racing, I'm of the belief that being aggressive with adding live dates during the winter is a break-even proposition AT WORST. I think Jan-mid March Sunday programs starting at the same time as Santa Anita would be embraced wholeheartedly. Your Thoughts.....
Jay Bergman More than 1 year ago
From the outside looking in it's impossible to know what break-even is. However, management has suggested the cost of doing business will be much less with the smaller building. If that's the case I can't see any harm in "attempting" some expansion just to test the waters. Whether Wednesday or Sunday or Monday or Tuesday, or all of the above Winter is Meadowlands wagering season and needs to be taken advantage of.