03/11/2012 4:34PM

Jay Bergman: Peter Koch’s job is a balancing act


If there’s one thing new owner Jeff Gural understood when he purchased the Meadowlands, it was the value of top employees. Perhaps none has been as important as director of racing Peter Koch. Gural had to make the necessary, and in many ways painful decision to knock down the number of racing dates. This effort forced, or should we say inspired, Koch to alter his playbook and still try to put together a winning formula.

It hasn’t been easy for Koch, who was inundated with entries in January.

“I think the fact that Freehold was closed for the first time in winter had a lot to do with that,” he said.

Undaunted by the heavy stream of entries in the box, Koch has magnificently performed a balancing act putting together the kind of races Meadowlands gamblers appreciate while attempting to satisfy as many horsemen as possible.

Koch’s job will get even tougher beginning this week as the New Meadowlands drops Thursday nights. The entry box got much lighter last week as Harrah’s Chester Downs opened.

“We were off by about a third in the entry box for Friday and Saturday,” said Koch.

The shortness forced Koch to card just a dozen races this past Saturday instead of the 13 he had been carding regularly. He doesn’t believe he will have the same problems going forward. “I’ll take some of the races from Thursday and put them on Friday and Saturday and we should be fine,” he said.

But Koch is forced to limit the number of races he cards for his two nights to 25 primarily due to an uncertain purse account. Essentially that will mean 12 races on Friday and 13 on Saturday.

That’s where the balancing act will come in. As Meadowlands shifts its schedule it will also likely see an influx of younger horses and Koch will need to find races to accommodate trainers, while at the same time recognizing that his core gambling audience likes the higher level conditioned events.

“I think there are people who like betting the younger horses and those who like betting the claimers,” he reflected.

But with just 25 races a week the Meadowlands is in a tough position. With young and old, trotters and pacers looking for racing opportunities, Chester and Yonkers offer a higher purse structure and 56 races each week to choose from.

Koch not only seems aware of the challenge, but also feels confident he can put the races together and maintain the gambling momentum that has been strong thus far, especially on-track.The success of the Rags to Riches has prompted Koch to put together a pair of series for 3-year-old trotters and pacers using the same parameters. The Spring Survivor Series for nonwinners of two parimutuel races or $75,000 lifetime will have elimination races with the top finishers advancing. It calls for a nominating fee of $550 and a first-round entry fee of $550, the same as the Rags to Riches. The event closes this week on Thursday and first round action is slated for the final weekend of March.

Koch is aware that should these late closers draw very well, it will limit even further his ability to card his regular races and get support.

Stakes for 3-year-olds struggling

If there’s one thing Koch seemed less willing to speak about it was the response to this year’s Meadowlands Pace. The track’s signature pacing event attracted only 42 3-year-old pacers putting its estimated $800,000 purse in some jeopardy. While Koch believes the nominees include all of the premier 3-year-olds, it was clear that the shortness in numbers should have an adverse effect on the final purse.

Just 15 fillies nominated to the Nadia Lobell, forcing its cancellation. The Mistletoe Shalee for 3-year-old filly pacers drew just 23 nominees. On the trotting side, the Stanley Dancer for 3-year-old colts has but 45 first-time pay-ins and the Del Miller for fillies drew just 41. The two trotting events are preps for the sports premier events – the Hambletonian and Hambletonian Oaks.

Despite efforts to reduce initial payments for the 3-year-old early closers, there seems to be a waning of interest in the signature events. It seems apparent that sire stakes programs in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ontario have pulled the horses and horsemen away from New Jersey’s major stakes events. The New Jersey sires program is no longer the drawing card it used to be. In the past, major Meadowlands stakes events for 3-year-olds were a combination of top performers as well as New Jersey Sire Stakes wannabes.

The lack of support for the Meadowlands major 3-year-old events is a direct reflection on today’s owners and their focus on profit. It makes little sense for owners racing in Pennsylvania or New York to leave the state when there is a solid Sire Stakes program and enough major stakes races to supplement them.

Peter Koch tried to lower the nominating and sustaining payments to these 3-year-old races a few years back, but no matter how things get reconfigured horsemen understand the economics of the business.

Such is the nature of the New Meadowlands’s struggle. Its ownership maintains a purpose in offering a strong stakes schedule despite a reduction in racing dates. Yet at the same time owners, enamored by more attractive schedules in other states, go where the money is. More importantly it seems as if owners are going where the money is “guaranteed.”

The positive news for Koch was that 2-year-old payments were much stronger this year than last, perhaps providing some hope that next year the Meadowlands will see a resurgence of its signature events.

In the end Koch has managed to balance an overnight, stakes and late-closing program. He has been able to give the gamblers something to chew on with limited resources.

He concedes, “It’s not like it was when there were 1,200 horses on the grounds,” but that would create a different problem. Koch has carefully managed to placate both horsemen and horseplayers, but with just 250 horses needed weekly his job will only get tougher.

Thankfully, the New Meadowlands has someone of his stature to handle the assignment.