10/16/2013 10:50AM

New Meadowlands construction hits the homestretch

Derick Giwner
Jeff Gural (right) and Jason Settlemoir pose in front of the New Meadowlands, which will open for live racing on November 23.

The New Meadowlands is coming and it could make going to the track "cool" again. That is the hope of operator Jeff Gural as the November 23 launch of his $90 million-plus facility nears completion. In an era when tracks are only built with casinos in mind, the East Rutherford, NJ building was architecturally designed only for the enjoyment of racing.

“Conceptually, I want people to say, ‘I’m going to the Meadowlands tonight.’ And have their girlfriends say, ‘great, I’m looking forward to It.’,” said Gural, who admitted he is part excited and part apprehensive about the opening. “It is something that has never been done before. We are in uncharted waters here.

[DRF HARNESS: Watch the Breeders Crown from Mohegan Sun Pocono Downs on October 19 - LIVE on DRF!]

“I would like to see the place have the same reputation it had 35 years ago; that this was a cool place to come and an “in” place to come. I need people to look at this like they look at Keeneland and Saratoga. Our place is much smaller, so while they need 17,000 people to look crowded, we only need 5,000. And on Hambletonian Day we’ll set up tents and stuff like they do at Churchill for the Derby and at Pimlico for the Preakness.”

Upon arrival, visitors have the option of entering the building from the main entrance or the simulcasting doors. Once inside you can easily navigate from one area to the next and at no time are you left searching for the path to the track apron. The simulcasting entrance allows a quick route to the track to watch the live action or the opportunity to dig right into your favorite simulcast signal in one of three specific areas. On the right is the VIP room for high rollers and to the left is a 100-seat tele-theater with individual monitors and plenty of large screen monitors overhead. The tele-theater will have a $3 cover charge, but just behind it on the main floor is a no-charge larger room with monitors and seating everywhere, plus food options for customers.

The high-roller room is taking shape. -Giwner   The first floor high-roller room takes shape.

The Victory Sports Bar is a sight to be seen. Nine 12’ x 20’ monitors adorn the walls of the rustic-looking room. The room has an upscale feel weeks before the finishing touches have been made. Even the bathroom, which is co-ed with oversized private stalls add to a "hip" and "now" nightclub atmosphere.

Some 30-something days from its grand opening, every inch of the building seems to scream technology. From the hi-definition monitors almost at every corner to the available outlets for charging phones, the New Meadowlands will not only be a state-of-the-art facility, but management understands what needs to be done to attract a more youthful audience.

“Today everything is Social Media,” said Gural. “What I need is for young people who do come to Tweet to their friends, ‘I’m here at New Meadowlands; it’s great; lots of fun; why don’t you come?’ That’s how you get customers. It is all blogs and that other stuff. These kids send out one Tweet, push a button and it goes to 2,000 people. If the Tweet is positive, then people will say, ‘hey, let’s go to the Meadowlands’”

For those coming in through the main entrance, you are greeted with a grand room with high ceilings and an escalator that invites you to climb to even better sightlines of the racetrack. Traveling one flight up the escalator brings you to a two-part second floor with great views of the track and the sports bar action.

The dual theme on the second floor covers both spectrums of the personality of patrons. Closer to the new first turn and finish line will be more upscale lounge décor with couches and comfort furniture. This section also features Trotters, an owner’s lounge and member’s only room which will offer a plush environment and buffet dining option. Those that venture to the far end of the floor will get a more natural racetrack experience. Seats, tables, and tellers will be plentiful for the diehard bettor. In total, the floor features 400 indoor seats to compliment the 1,600 outdoor seats. There is also plenty of standing room under an overhang on the second floor so people can watch the action outside despite inclement weather.

Looking down from the second floor at the Victory Sports Bar.-Giwner  Looking down from the second floor at the Victory     Sports Bar.

A short ride up the escalator or elevator to the third floor places you in another luxury environment. Once again the floor is divided into two sections. Closer to the finish line is Pink, a posh sit-down restaurant with stunning views of the track below. The 300-seat dining facility is about half the size of the Terraces Restaurant from the old grandstand and will offer a prix fixe menu.

The third level also offers six Sky Boxes that will be available to high-rollers or anyone that wants to celebrate a special occasion.

Perhaps the Pièce de résistance is located on the upper level. In addition to housing the Judges Booth, Chart-caller, Press and Announcer, the fourth floor is an open-air outdoor patio with stunning views of the Manhattan skyline and the track below. Expected to open in April, the area is certain to be a hotspot for younger people looking to hang out at the track and have a beer.

Behind the scenes, administrative offices are nicely tucked in on the second floor allowing management to easily mingle with customers and ensure smooth operations.

“We did that by design,” said CEO and General Manager Jason Settlemoir on the locations of the offices. I’m going to be all over the place. I’m out there with the customers, with the employees and with the horsemen. I want to make sure people are enjoying themselves and that the operation is running smoothly. I’m a very hands-on guy. I’d never ask any of my employees to do something I wouldn’t do. I’m there for anyone. A customer at any level can approach me, and my email and even cell phone number is out there so I can answer any question. That is how I’ve always operated and that’s how Jeff operates.”

The changes will be more than just physical at the New Meadowlands. The track is installing all new audio and visual equipment to offer in-house and simulcast players the best possible experience. Management hopes that within the next few years enough simulcast partners will switch to hi-def equipment so that the Meadowlands signal will be shown almost exclusively with that sharper image. You can also look for a new graphics package with an enhanced color scheme to debut upon the November grand opening.

Fourth floor outside bar of the New Meadowlands.-Giwner  Fans will have a birds-eye view of the action from  the new fourth floor outdoor bar when it opens in  April, 2014.

The new building is sure to lure the curious over the first year. Its success or failure will in many ways be directly related to pari-mutuel handle.

“We would be disappointed if the on-track (handle) didn’t rise,” said Gural. “We are going to make a major effort to teach people how to bet. We are going to have betting windows exclusively for novices so you don’t get people behind the newbie getting grumpy and the teller getting grumpy. We are going to have Kiosks where you can ask questions and we’ll have tellers walking around. I’m going to make a major effort to teach people how to bet.

“I’d really like to see the place crowded without it being overly crowded, because I don’t want people to come and see the place swamped,” continued Gural. “I don’t really know what to expect because we don’t have a huge marketing budget, so you are not going to see TV commercials all over the place. I wish we had them, but we don’t. We are still working on a budget for the racetrack without subsidies and it isn’t easy.”

Even with a new building to fall back on, the best part about the management team at the New Meadowlands is they rarely rest on their laurels. Gural, Settlemoir and Director of Racing Darin Zoccali, among others, are always willing to make changes or tinker with something that is not working perfectly.

Settlemoir said he would like to open the doors for simulcasting on November 11 to give the place a test drive and work out the kinks before the live show kicks off 12 days later. Normally composed, he could hardly hide his excitement as the date approaches.

“It is going to be a beautiful facility,” said Settlemoir.” It is going to be a cool place to be. People are going to walk in and say, ‘Wow, this is a great place for racing.’”

[DRF HARNESS: Sign Up for the FREE DRF Harness Newsletter Today!]