04/22/2007 11:00PM

As meet opens, revival seems possible


The future looks much brighter for Atlantic City Race Course.

Left for dead several times in the past, Atlantic City opens Wednesday for four days of all-turf racing.

Atlantic City will run Wednesday and Thursday this week and May 2 and 3. Post time is 3 p.m. Eastern.

It's a far cry from the glory days when the track was one of the leaders on East Coast, offering a full summer schedule while attracting grass champions to its lush course for the United Nations Handicap.

In recent seasons, Atlantic City scaled back to a handful of racing days for the sole purpose of maintaining a simulcasting license.

The widely held assumption was that live racing would end - sooner rather than later - with the crumbling grandstand replaced by an offtrack betting facility.

A funny thing happened on the way to the graveyard - fans kept showing up for the limited live racing.

"We had a very nice response last year," said Hal Handel, the CEO of Greenwood Racing, which owns Atlantic City and Philadelphia Park. "We averaged over 3,500 people the four days we raced, and that's without much in the way of amenities or advertising, except word of mouth.

"Doing turf racing at this time of year is very advantageous, especially in the cheaper categories that we run. Hopefully, we're getting very close to having something very concrete to talk about - the track's future."

That includes expansion to a 20-day meet, perhaps by the spring of 2008, in front of a new grandstand and simulcast facility.

The ground floor would feature a state-of-the-art simulcast facility with banks of high-definition televisions. The second level would be a small open-air grandstand with 600 to 1,000 seats for the monthlong race meet.

"If you are standing in the current grandstand looking at the finish line, the new facility would be to the right, at the seven-eighths pole," Handel said. "It's a mile-and-an-eighth racetrack, so we can move the finish line down to the new building. We will build this before we demolish the old one, so we don't lose any operations. We'd build it, be in it, and then take the old building down."

The decaying grandstand and barn areas would then be demolished. Gone, but not forgotten as the new facility would retain some traditional Atlantic City touches.

"The existing paddock and walking ring would stay," Handel said. "There would be design elements in the new building that would echo the old racetrack."

In an era when many cavernous grandstands sit empty, the new Atlantic City could offer a paradigm for the racetrack of the future.

"At a time when people are closing racetracks, maybe this is the kind of thing you can build," Handel said. "Maybe the mistake is building 300,000-square-foot grandstands when we don't need to."

Handel anticipates construction possibly starting in the fall. The project will take eight months to a year to complete.

Depending on trends in New Jersey racing, Handel would consider an additional meet in the fall.

"Clearly, what's been happening at Monmouth in the fall has been less than overwhelming, and the Meadowlands fall Thoroughbred meeting has been on a downward trend," he said. "It does give New Jersey another lifeline, a place to run some Thoroughbred days, depending on whatever else happens in the state."

New Jersey horsemen have seen the schedule dwindle over the last decade with the demolition of Garden State Park, a reduced meet at the Meadowlands, and Atlantic City cutting back to only four days. They have withdrawn their long-standing objections to Atlantic City running such a short season.

"We support the concept of building a new track and offering more Thoroughbred racing days in the future," said Dennis Drazin, president of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "We have come to an agreement to not oppose this current meet. We wish them well."