01/26/2010 12:00AM

NJ racing hoping there's a Plan B


The sky is falling on New Jersey racing.

That's not Chicken Little's view. It's mine and that of others in racing who have read the draft suggestions of a report being submitted to new Gov. Chris Christie.

The 20-page draft precedes a final version to be submitted to the governor, and its recommendations include the possible closing of the Meadowlands, the nation's top harness track and home of the Hambletonian, harness racing's Kentucky Derby.

The draft contains some provocative ideas to fulfill the committee's mission, which is "to harness, distill and focus upon a series of key issues that must be thoroughly examined and integrated into a master plan for the 'Global Good' of New Jersey." The opening paragraph says, "This plan will provide an outline of a roadmap."

The road could lead to disaster for racing.

The potential impact goes far beyond the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which is treated harshly by the state-appointed committee, headed by the former chairman of the Authority, Jon Hanson. It affects the lives and welfare of 12,000 people employed in the horse industry in New Jersey. The report acknowledges those numbers and avowedly is concerned with "the addition of gaming at New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware racetracks [that] drove New Jersey's on-track live racing from profitable to unprofitable in the past five years."

But there is one huge omission. There is not one word in the thousands in the report suggesting the Meadowlands, Monmouth Park, or Freehold Raceway be allowed to meet that slots competition with racinos of their own.

This is curious, since the report's executive summary says the commission's goal is "to encourage consideration of all the options to make horse racing self-sustaining," but omits the one most likely to do so.

Perhaps, considering the composition of the committee, it is not so curious.

The 14-person gaming, sports and entertainment transition team, composed of 13 men and one woman, includes the senior vice president and general counsel of Borgata Casino & Spa, the CEO of Trump Entertainment, the president of Excalibur Amusements, and a vice president of Harrah's Entertainment.

Not one racing executive is on the panel, and only one representative of horse racing is: Mike Gulotta, a former Wall Streeter who operates a state-of-the-art harness horse breeding farm in the state. Not a single official representing Thoroughbred racing or harness racing management is included.

The report includes this: "We encourage consideration of all the options to make horse racing self-sustaining." It says its goal is to continue to have live racing, but it also says "discontinuing racing at the Meadowlands and restructuring the industry in NJ" is one option.

Another option, the report says, is "a feasibility study for the commercial development of the Meadowlands, including examining other potential uses such as NASCAR."

If the committee pursues that feasibility study, I suggest it begin in Chicago, where auto racing was introduced, at huge cost, as the salvation of Sportsman's Park. Both auto racing and Sportsman's Park itself are gone, the bold experiment a disaster.

Gullota, the committee's lone racing man, has filed a dissenting report to the committee relating to the operations of the Meadowlands and the committee's omission, and presumably rejection, of diversified gaming there.

He said he believes New Jersey would lose what is widely considered the premier Standardbred racetrack in the world, an asset that should be leveraged and not wasted. He said those assets include the possibility of new revenues ranging from $250 million a year to $1 billion with the addition of a racino that could be sold or leased to a private sector operator. Such a move also would generate another major source of revenue to address the state's looming budget deficit.

Gullota also said he thinks a Meadowlands racino could help restart the huge multi-billion dollar Xanadu entertainment and shopping project, now completely stalled.

He said he believes the transition team that drafted the report represents an aggressive head start to address serious issues facing New Jersey, and he said the report "should be the catalyst for continued dialogue and discussion of rather complex issues."

The report understandably frightens those in racing in New Jersey. It could, with broader views and more specific suggestions, prove a useful approach to the many problems of racing and Atlantic City, if the adversarial relationship between the two can be resolved.

As for Gov. Christie, it is hard to believe that a successful lawyer and former U.S. federal attorney will not see the huge downside to the end of an industry that contributes as much as horse racing and its related activities do to the green areas and overall economy of the state he runs.