11/16/2010 1:07PM

New Jersey horse business facing bitter end

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TUCSON – The death sentence arrived in a terse, four-paragraph release with an appropriate dateline of Atlantic City, and carried all the lethal impact that thousands of people who make their living in harness racing in New Jersey had feared.

Thoroughbred horsemen fared little better, as they will soon discover.

The word was that Chris Christie, who campaigned last year for money and votes for governor of the state with promises that he understood the problems of horse racing, had his chief executioner for racing, Jon Hanson, pull the switch.

The commission named for Hanson announced that there was no way the state could support two state-run tracks, and it proposed for the second and presumably final time to eliminate live racing at the Meadowlands, converting the world’s greatest trotting track into a giant OTB.

It would consolidate its live harness racing into a shortened meet at Monmouth Park, an hour south of the crowded bedroom suburbs of New York, where the Meadowlands has raced for 34 years, eight miles from Manhattan. It has yet to be decided whether Monmouth will again run its a celebrated million-dollar-a-day shortened meeting, which brightened the Thoroughbred racing scene last summer and drew rave reviews from around the country and produced top-flight racing to the seaside track.

Hanson and Christie propose selling both tracks “to the private sector.”

This is not some bush-league operation that the politically ambitious governor and his lieutenant are dismantling. It is the World Capital of Harness Racing, having taken that title from Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island when the Big M opened in 1976. It has presented the world’s greatest harness race – the Hambletonian, the sport’s Kentucky Derby – each August since 1981. It introduced million-dollar purses on a grand scale – 73 in all – since it raced the first in the sport on July 18, 1980.

The Hambletonian carried a $1 million purse for 25 years, then rose to $1.5 million for the last six. Along with it, the Meadowlands raced a companion mile for fillies, the Hambletonian Oaks, which carried a $500,000 purse from 1997 until 2004, then raced the last six editions for $750,000. It also raced 29 editions of the Meadowlands Pace, the counterpart of the Hambltetonian, for 3-year-old pacers.

These were the sport’s big time, the world’s most celebrated harness races here and in Europe and Australasia, and they brought prestige, pride and profit to New Jersey.

Now, with a pen stroke, Christie is removing the sport from the scene of its greatest triumphs. But he and Jon Hanson are doing far more than that.

They are sacrificing irreplaceable treasures – some of the lushest green space in the East, land that until now has provided homes for the best harness horses in the world and jobs for thousands who have made their livings breeding, raising, feeding and caring for them – along with scores of industries supplying them.

Replacing this green glory with suburban homes may appeal to Hanson, a real estate magnate, but it is despicable and inexcusable action for two governmental leaders in the nation’s most densely populated state, based on people per square mile.

It is unconscionable kowtowing to casino interests who are regarded by many as the surrogate rulers of New Jersey. Their influence in Trenton, the state capital, is beyond question, and what makes this agricultural disaster so disgraceful is that there is a clear way out, without harm to any of the parties – horsemen, casinos or the state – and has been from the start.

The solution would be a governor with guts, who would not bow to the boardwalk barons. He would stand up and tell them what he planned to do, just as he did when he announced weeks ago that he was installing an administrative state junta to run Atlantic City.

He would insist on a casino – perhaps owned by a consortium of the 11 in Atlantic City – at the Meadowlands, and in doing so he would enable racing to continue at the track and prosper and flourish, while the casinos and state and racing industry solved their economic dilemmas as well.

That’s what a political tough guy – an image Christie loves to portray – would do.

Instead, Christie, Hanson and his yes-men bowed to interests other than the citizens of the state they were charged to serve.

It is a disastrous course of action, and if not rectified will destroy a major industry on an unprecedented scale.

Even sadder, the runners and Monmouth Park will go next.