07/27/2010 3:42PM

New Jersey scheme calls for alarms to sound


TUCSON, Ariz. - The racing disaster in New Jersey - and it is just that - is the clearest demonstration yet of how powerless American racing is in a political environment dominated by casinos. Last week, a panel convened by Gov. Chris Christie recommended that the New Jersey racing industry should no longer receive financial assistance, and the Meadowlands racetrack should be closed or sold for a nominal fee.

It should be no consolation to those in Thoroughbred racing that the principal victim in this travesty is harness racing. Monmouth Park is in equal danger. It is frightening that Christie is willing even to consider the recommendations of a stacked commission he appointed to study the issue, and sacrifice the nation's leading harness track and one of its finest Thoroughbred operations, along with some of racing's classic events, including harness racing's Kentucky Derby, the Hambletonian, and Monmouth's Haskell.

Even more frightening is that racing nationally has not fully realized the threat and the possible result. What is happening in New Jersey should provoke an unprecedented groundswell of objection, a tidal wave of anger and opposition that could at least make Christie aware that if he doesn't care for racing, thousands of others, in New Jersey and across the land, do. Instead, American racing is divided and fractured by breed lines and breed prejudice, and each segment has little interest in or concern for the other.

There is no true national leadership in either sport, no one to stir the troops and muster a unified response. A five-year effort at consolidation -- the joint annual meetings of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations and Harness Tracks of America, the two sports' trade associations -- was abandoned this year by TRA.

This is not merely an issue threatening big races or one racetrack. If the Meadowlands goes down, or is converted, as the governor's commission has suggested, into a giant OTB parlor, the domino effect will affect every harness track in the land. Christie's commission suggests both tracks be privatized by sale or lease. To whom? Who would want them without alternative gaming, except real estate speculators?

It was not an accident that not one horseman or horsewoman is on the governor's commission. None was wanted.

The real problem, of course, is that the Atlantic City casinos represent a shadow government in New Jersey, and exert tremendous influence in Trenton, the state capital. It is no coincidence that the gaming and racing summit, to be held Aug. 6 to discuss the issue, will be co-chaired by state Senator Jim Whelan, mayor of Atlantic City for 11 years, and will be held at Atlantic City. It is odds-on that racing will get short shrift.

It is ironic that the day after Whelan and his crew discuss how to save Atlantic City next week, the Meadowlands will present the Hambletonian for 3-year-old trotters for $1.5 million, the Hambletonian Oaks for $750,000, two classics for 2-year-old trotters and pacers for $525,000 each, and a $300,000 race for older trotters.

The Haskell at Monmouth Park offers the Derby and Preakness winners, as well as the runners-up in both of those races.

Veteran columnist Jerry Izenberg reminds us that this is not the first time that a New Jersey legislature turned on racing. An earlier one banned the sport and all gambling in the state for 53 years, from 1893 to 1946.

Horse racing of both breeds is big business in New Jersey. Beyond the racetracks lay major farms, preserving green space and employing thousands. Behind them are the breeders. owners, trainers, jockeys, and drivers, veterinarians, feed men, blacksmiths, an industry that Rutgers estimates employs 13,000, protects some 200,000 acres of open space, and has a total economic impact of $4 billion on the state's economy. But there are countless commercial breeders all over the land, and without races like those at the Meadowlands and Monmouth, the prices of their yearlings will drop precipitously. One of the best and biggest, Perretti Farms in Cream Ridge, N.J., already has said it will close its doors if the Meadowlands is not saved.

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as the governor's commission recommends, is not the answer.

It's too bad the summit meeting isn't at Monmouth Park for the Haskell, or at the Meadowlands for the Hambletonian. Maybe the cloistered commission that recommends treating the patient by killing him would get a clearer picture of what their shameless shortsightedness threatens to destroy.