Good news and bad news from New Jersey, where the state wants to drastically overhaul horse racing.
The good news is any proposed drastic overhaul. The bad news is that at face value, it’s not all-inclusive and lacks long-term vision.
The return to a roughly June-through-Labor Day schedule at Monmouth Park is long overdue, and The Meadowlands might be better off having the flexibility to schedule harness racing at various times of the year. Another 21 days of fall racing at Monmouth with substantially lower purses must be a bone for locals.
Based on 2009 purse statistics, offering 50 days of spring/summer racing with average daily purses of $1 million at Monmouth seems a stretch. So does going from 140 days of racing a year to 70 days in the blink of an eye given the investment breeders have made in New Jersey.
Handle on Monmouth races would have to rise dramatically—that’s not happening anywhere these days, quality racing or not—to compensate for cutting live racing dates in half. Also, the $1-million carrot surely depends on this year’s casino purse subsidy, which expires at the end of 2010.
The proposal has been called an “experiment.” OK, so what’s the backup plan? Or is this a go-out-with-a-big-bang plan?
As has been the case with previous discussions, the owners of two private racetracks in the state—Freehold Raceway and Atlantic City Race Course—have not been involved. The strategically-located harness track offers about 170 days of racing a year, while the Thoroughbred track is an underutilized resource in need of improvements that could give it a substantive role in New Jersey racing.
Alas, both tracks are owned by casino companies that currently have no gaming holdings in New Jersey. That's called political death.
Any proposal should look at the big picture: Ideally, live Thoroughbred racing from April through November, with enough opportunities for New Jersey-bred horses that have helped filled races in the state for years and contribute to land preservation and agriculture.
Something along the lines of 70 days at Monmouth and 30 at Atlantic City spread out over eight months might work. On the harness side, people forget how good the racing was at Freehold years ago in the fall when The Meadowlands was closed; there’s no reason it shouldn’t be part of the equation.
Handle in New Jersey has gradually declined in recent years, but according to the latest New Jersey Racing Commission annual report, handle generated in the state in 2008 was more than $934 million (on track, OTB parlors, casino race books, and in-state advance deposit wagering). That’s a lot of money for a state with casino gambling and casinos in all of its bordering states.
So why hasn’t handle flat out tanked in New Jersey with all this competition? Why do casinos want to close their race books? Why is it so hard to come up with a workable racing calendar with four racetracks in the state?
The problem is New Jersey has a bad case of casinoitis. For years we’ve heard how Atlantic City must be protected, yet companies with properties in Atlantic City built casinos in neighboring Pennsylvania to protect their interests.
Several of Atlantic City's current legislative protectors were in office when I was a newspaper reporter in South Jersey in the late 1980s. No wonder there's never any positive change involving New Jersey and its precious casinos.
Anyone who has lived in the Mid-Atlantic region knows how close you are from point A to point B at any time, even if traffic slows you down. You have your pick of racetracks, casinos, and even limited sports betting in Delaware.
Pro-gaming or anti-gaming, does anyone honestly believe at this particular point in time that video lottery terminals at four New Jersey racetracks will make that much difference to Atlantic City’s success or failure?
Does anyone believe a patron from Pennsylvania that can visit a local racetrack slots parlor anyway is going to stop to play VLTs at Atlantic City Race Course with the Atlantic City casinos only 14 miles down the road? Isn’t Atlantic City supposed to be a “destination resort” that generates revenue from non-gaming enterprises?
New Jersey voters believed that when casino gambling there was approved by constitutional amendment in the 1970s. Racing has done plenty to screw things up since those days, but it’s not entirely to blame.
New Jersey government and governments in neighboring states had a major hand in the mess. In the 1970s and 1980s, in attempts to generate more revenue from pari-mutuel taxes, they pushed for or allowed for overlapping dates and regional conflicts that ultimately led to the closure of several tracks and a watered-down product. Now that pari-mutuel revenue can’t match the mother’s milk that is casino revenue, few seem to care about racing. Heck, get rid of it.
There is nothing historically to suggest New Jersey will get it right this time. One can only hope whatever plan is proposed, it’s for the long haul, involves all the players, and preserves an important industry in the state.