11/18/2013 12:43PM

Jay Bergman: Plenty to look forward to as new Meadowlands grandstand opens

Derick Giwner
The Meadowlands will open for live racing on November 23.

“If you build it, he will come.”

The New Meadowlands grandstand didn’t rise from cornfields. It sits opposite a grandstand that in 1976 was opened and people came. They came in numbers not simply to see the building, but mostly to see the show on the one-mile track.

Sure, to those harness fans that had spent lifetimes watching horses go around in circles twice before a bet was decided, the innovation of the mile track was something to behold.

On Saturday night the climate will be different.

On Saturday night there will be no going back to the past.

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On Saturday night it will be in fact a “new” era simply because it will be the grandstand that is the show. The field as we know it will remain the same other than the proximity of the finish wire altered.

It’s going to be weird looking forward and looking back at the same time. There was no “other” grandstand in place when we set foot in the Meadowlands on September 1, 1976.

But 1976 and the races that took place on that night will bare no resemblance to what will be on the track this Saturday night in East Rutherford. The differences are mind-boggling.

To those coming to New Jersey for the first time to see a harness race, it was a who’s who of standardbred racehorses and drivers and trainers, many coming from outside of the metropolitan New York area.

The Meadowlands we’ll see on Saturday night, or at least the product we’ll see on the racetrack, will be vastly improved from the track’s original opening night.

That’s the way it should be.

A new grandstand hopes to usher in a new era and Jeff Gural and company are hoping to bring the best harness racing they can to those looking for a weekend night out. The premise and principle idea behind the racing schedule shows that we are light years removed from 1976.

The majority of the Meadowlands racing days from this Saturday through the first Saturday in August 2014 are Fridays and Saturdays. While horsemen and this observer wish to see an expansion of racing days in January and February, it’s hard to think things can be the same as they were in 1976.

I had some friends back then who were regulars at Roosevelt and Yonkers. They were half-mile track bettors plain and simply because those were the only tracks within an hours driving distance. For them there were no options until one arrived in New Jersey, not far removed from midtown Manhattan.

“We were there every night,” said Gary.

The fact that Gary and his crew made the trip from Long Island each racing day was exciting to them at the time. There was no concern about traffic. There was no concern about tolls or the price of gasoline. There was also no concern that they were giving up Roosevelt or Yonkers to join a new tradition at The Meadowlands.

The shift from six-nights-a-week of live racing to just two implies that people like Gary would not make that trip each and every night even if there was racing.

It’s a hard concept to fight against given the ease at which today’s gamblers can place a bet. Gary sits in his house today and doesn’t have to leave in order to watch or wager on races.

Yet there are those who will want to get out. There are those who are looking for excitement, something they can see in person and something they can enjoy. For them the New Meadowlands grandstand and the races will provide vivid proof that the sport is still very much alive.

Opening night in 2013 won’t have the 40,000 plus in attendance, but there’s a great chance the new building will be bustling with a crowd large enough to add the same buzz that emanated in 1976.

That’s what’s most important as we try to forge through the next era for this sport. Let’s try to convince the next generation that something is happening at the racetrack and it’s a place you should want to go to.

For that the Meadowlands will be showcasing in its first two weeks of action the cream of the racing crop. Thankfully many of the sports leading horses will be on display during that period and even more remarkably many of them have managed to be kept in peak condition.

If all goes as scheduled, this Saturday’s opening night will offer a glimpse of the talent we’re going to see on the November 30 extravaganza.

Missing this week, but hopefully in attendance seven days later will be Captaintreacherous, Bee A Magician and I Luv The Nitelife, all legitimate Horse of the Year candidates.

That’s what’s going to be special this time around. Perhaps for the first and only time, a Horse of the Year title may be decided on one racetrack in three separate races.

To me that’s the best part of this new equation, that despite the lateness in the racing season our sport’s stars are available and willing to go to battle. That the connections of Captaintreacherous, a horse managed for the specific purpose of keeping him fit and ready for late November, may give the sport the shot in the arm it truly needs by providing the spectacle once again of three-year-olds racing against older foes. While sophomores have taken on aged pacers somewhere back in time, it’s just not been done in modern times, perhaps because there was no venue to host.

With the TVG finals on November 30, the New Meadowlands grandstand offers what hopefully will become a tradition for years to come. The opportunity is there to answer racing fans questions and create new fans that want to see something unique.

These are exciting times in harness racing and certainly powerful enough to lure a live audience once again.