AC Is Proof Racing Can Succeed in Spite of Self

It defies logic, but this is horse racing.

You had to see it to believe it: Thousands of people on a cool, windy day jamming the grandstand at Atlantic City Race Course, the New Jersey track that was supposed to close and be demolished about 12 years ago.

Kids with parents, 20-something beer drinkers, baby boomers, and seniors that probably were regulars at the joint in the 1960s. They were having a good time, and some even placed bets. It was the perfect demographic because there was no demographic.

All this amid a decaying circa 1946 facility, limited amenities—including one set of bathrooms—no tote board, a horrible sound system, and no outdoor food service. It does however, have arguably the nicest turf course in the country; not a clod was spotted race after race after race.

The opening day Sunday, April 18, crowd was announced at more 7,000. Probably a stretch, but having attended the “turf festival” for several consecutive years, I can say there were a lot more people at Atlantic City this year than last year. The first-day crowd seemed at least 6,000.

The crowds and handle keep growing each year. Those of us who patronize the meet have gotten to the point where we don’t even notice the cracked concrete and dilapidated—and largely unused—barn area. It’s just nice to be there.

Atlantic City is beyond proof horse racing can actually succeed in spite of itself and the malaise and "it's not worth it anymore" mentality that is greatly damaging it from within. The crowds at Atlantic City are trying to tell us something. Is anybody listening?

This is not to say people should be exposed to inadequate facilities. The place needs mucho work. It's a miracle the track somehow retains a grace and class about it.

Said track president Maureen Gallagher-Bugdon, who has worked at ACRC since 1986 in various capacities: “One thing that has remained constant and actually seems to grow is the love and nostalgia people feel for this wonderful, old racetrack and its employees. I think folks have become very protective and territorial of ACRC and South Jersey, in general, when it comes to this facility and its yearly turf festivals.”

Gallagher-Bugdon is big on community involvement, and it shows during the six-day meet. She also doesn’t have much of a budget, and who knows how much it would cost to restore the old fortress, or knock it down and rebuild, for that matter.

With another meet at the track that wouldn’t die in the books, the following questions arise: Where is Greenwood? Where is the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association? Where is the New Jersey Racing Commission? Where are Gov. Chris Christie and the state-owned New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority? Where are the state legislators?

As each year goes by, and the crowds grow, the status quo won’t cut it. Is this place going to take the next step forward or not? Can someone out there please answer the question?

All you have to do is attend live racing at Atlantic City to know horse racing—in South Jersey and beyond—is far from dead. But do the people that pull the strings care enough to do something about it?

Yeah, I know. This is racing. It defies logic.

19 Comments

Leave a Comment:

JerseyTom

Submitted by ScottJ: 

Just attended the closing day of the 2010 Atlantic City Race Course's Turf Festival. Some observations that will stay with me for some time and might result in more than a few articles:

[1] Explain how 8,500 people show up with virtually no advertising. There is something happening here related to boutique meets that people in general and Greenwood in particular need to notice.

[2] The six-day all-meet handle jumped by huge numbers again and attendance on track was up at record high numbers. Take it from me--the Saturday closing day grandstand/apron was packed and reminded of Belmont Sundays back in the late 70s and early 80s.

[3] The turf course is a gem and the dirt course could well be once again. With the cut in New Jersey dates, is there a window for ACRC to move into the Thoroughbred game again?

[4] Yes, the ACRC physical plant has certainly gone down hill since the 1990s. However, despite this, people are coming--in droves.

Folks, there is something special happening here. In an odd sense, it is magical. You would have had to have been at ACRC on Saturday, April 24, 2010 to understand it.

26 Apr 2010 1:48 PM
Kevin

Greenwood, where are they? Great question, but there is no answer, or is there?

This year Greenwood turned down any chance/offers of applying for and receiving slots money. To accept would have meant racing beyond the six days required to keep the off-track betting parlor rights. A longer meet might have even drawn more attention to the veritable waste they have allowed this grand old lady of a racetrack to become. Notice might have been made that the track is a potential viable important economic and historic resource.

In the past Greenwood has refused to consider all offers to buy the racetrack. Presently they refuse even to discuss the issue.

A independent Atlantic City Race Track is competition for Greenwood's Philadelphia Park Casino just across the river. It serves their purpose to keep the track as she is. The casinos of A.C. also fear her for the same reasons.

I could go on, let's just suffice to say there are a myriad of greedy, self-centered groups whose interests are served by allowing this track to die. Legally they can't do it quickly so they allow her to slowly choke.

All of these groups have been aided and abetted by campaign-contributed local and state politicians. When it comes to political greed, New Jersey is only second to New York where money is involved.

Track president Gallagher Bugdon has proven to be dedicated. She is well-meaning. Many of her pronouncements of future possible expansions sound great. I think she believes what she says. She is the only official public voice allowed by Greenwood. I think the use of her words to placate with promises without schedule, she unknowingly serves Greenwood's purpose well.

Gov. Chris Christie is Atlantic City Race Course's only hope. Only he can cut through the morass that envelopes it as it stands. If he does not, soon we will find its buildings condemned. Those in control will express regret on the loss, explaining the cost factor in fixing and restoring is not viable.

The Thoroughbred racing world, the people of the state of New Jersey, all of us, will be so much poorer because of that loss.    

26 Apr 2010 3:12 PM
Jennie

The sad thing is that Greenwood doesn't give a damn how many people show up. The proof is the small budget they give the track for advertising. Why such a small budget? Greenwood is hauling millions, I repeat, millions of dollars each MONTH out of its snazzy Parx casino. The answer is that Greenwood wants Atlantic City to die so it will be one less horse racing facility they have to worry about. They've already let the backstretch rot and only run the minimum number of days to qualify for off-track and simulcasting rights. They are not track operators, they are track destroyers.  

26 Apr 2010 3:21 PM
The_Knight_Sky racing blog

I was one of those in attendance on the sixth and final day of the spring meet.

I was actually surprised to see how functional the racetrack still is. It is actually much more fan-friendly than, say, Aqueduct is at the moment.

The ball is in Greenwood Racing's court. To make an investment in live racing in this state. Or sell the property to someone who will make good use for racing purposes.

________

If it is all right with the moderator ...

I have images and my views for a "boutique meet" have been outlined at my little space at:

theknightskyracing.blogspot.com/.../six-in-city-aycee-completes-week-long.html

26 Apr 2010 4:58 PM
CRob87

Congrats to AC.

And No offense to anyone, but...

Of course 7,000 people are gonna come out for a 6 day meet.

Whenever the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus comes to town they sell out for their own 6 day stay, too.

And the Harlem Globetrotters as well for their 1-2 day stay.

Is this the real future of racing ???

6 day meets all over the country ???

Are we just lining up to become the next Circus Act ???

26 Apr 2010 5:29 PM
Bluto

Great submissions Kevin and Jennie

You are so on target.

26 Apr 2010 5:58 PM
SAL

I have been going to acrc for thirty eight years. I was there on opening day 4/18/2010 with 7000-plus in attendance. I wish it could reopen for a full season to show that people love this track. But with the state being owners of Monmouth and Meadowlands, it would be highly unlikely.

26 Apr 2010 6:01 PM
Ruffian

Greenwood loses money on the AC meet. In truth, most of the big crowds aren't there to bet, and the whales and knowledgeable bettors don't play AC, despite the big fields. It's akin to a 'fair meet.' Don't get me wrong; it's one of the best turf courses I've ever seen (we were there again closing day) and the circus atmosphere is always worth the trip, but frankly, Greenwood has no interest in using the facility appropriately, i.e., with short meets when the turf course at Philly is shredded and full of weeds, so what's the right strategy? Greenwood only wants to fulfill its contractual OTB obligation, nothing more. I would LOVE a fall turf meet as well, especially after Monmouth is beaten to death, and Philly closes turf racing because they don't know how to maintain a grass course. Bring on AC, spring and fall!

26 Apr 2010 6:35 PM
The_Knight_Sky racing blog

<b>CRob87 -</b>

That is exactly what NJ racing needs, now that The Meadowlands Thoroughbred season has fallen into disfavor.

Two weeks in the spring and perhaps another two weeks in the autumn would serve the state's racing calendar much more than to bring back the summertime evening racing from the late 1980s.

I believe the problem is not the state but Greenwood Racing, the owners of Philadelphia Park. They must make an investment in sprucing things up year by year.

And there is a LOT that needs to be done. But it must be done because there aren't many racetracks with such a storied past as Aycee.

I do not recall this much positive reaction by the locals for an Atlantic City meet after the conclusion of the season. The ball must be kept rolling.

The NJ Racing Commission must try to squeeze extra dates on next year's calendar to complement Monmouth Park's summer meet. I'm pretty sure that the horsemen would support it significantly more than they do with the Big M Thoroughbreds.

PS: there are no lights around the main track, so for the near future it looks like more turf racing in the daytime. But the main track looks fixable for racing. Nothing is beyond repair.

Investors Bob Hope, Princess Grace, and ol' Blue eyes are counting on us to protect its heritage.

26 Apr 2010 7:18 PM
JerseyTom

Following is a link to yet another blog about the AC meet. Geez, this joint is a candidate for the cover of "Weird NJ" magazine. Has developed a sort of cult following, it seems.

pathoroughbred.blogspot.com/.../less-is-more.html

26 Apr 2010 7:35 PM
The_Knight_Sky racing blog

That is just an awesome picture of from the 1940s from pathoroughbred.blogspot.com. I can't believe that it is in color. Strolling the grounds gave me the feel that the whole place was one gorgeous park back in the 50s and 60s. All 250 acres of it.

I'm saddened the place isn't as well kept these days but at the same time I'm excited at the possibility for Atlantic City race course's resurgence.

26 Apr 2010 7:53 PM
Pat Cummings

I think people are missing the point. The small supply of racing there IS what is driving the demand - Economics 101. The fact they ran two cards on weekends allows the crowd to grow - previous years the six-day meet was Thursdays and Fridays for three consecutive weeks.

Proclaiming you want MORE of that (whatever that may be) is exactly the problem racing finds itself in today. ;TOO much of racing zaps the impetus to go. Racing is oversupplied and underdemanded...provide a spark of racing here and there, and you fill the demand. These types of meets are great--reproducing the same feeling will require MANY reductions in days and races--but that will substantially increase attendance, purses, handle (on the days that are run), and field sizes.

Less is more, more is less.

26 Apr 2010 8:42 PM
Kevin

To: The Knight Sky Racing Blog

Fantastic piece of work. Written and edited together perfectly.

On behalf of the Grand Old Lady of Racetracks, and all who have come to hold her dear over the years, thank you. Atlantic City Race Track deserves some excellence, and you gave it to her.

Kevin

26 Apr 2010 9:11 PM
ACRC Forever

I was there on Friday. The place is run down, with no working tote board, empty barns, and a mostly shuttered grandstand facility. Even the tower clock has lost its mechanical pieces.

But it does not matter. Because ACRC is STILL the most beautiful racetrack of all. Its turf course is second to none. Its down-to-earth atmosphere is irresistible for any patron who knows its history and has felt its wonderful ambience.

It has a special charm and architectural uniqueness that no modernist facility could ever equal. It is everything a racetrack is supposed to be all about, without the fluff and glitz. Those who have spent time there over the years understand what I say.

Many racetracks offer a higher brand of racing. But for me, there is no track I look forward to seeing more than that beautiful old brick palace, Atlantic City Race Course.

27 Apr 2010 8:49 AM
Stu Kirshenbaum

Tom,

Very nice piece!

If you love horse racing, you couldn't help but feel good about what was going on at ACRC on Saturday. And you nailed it. It was the perfect demographic because there was no demographic.

Pat Cummings is completely on the mark, too. Less is more, not just for Atlantic City, but for the entire industry. But is there not a happy medium?

ACRC can never be what it was, but could it not be a little more than what it is? Why could they not run 10 days in April or May, and 10 days in October or November? And if we ever get to that point, why would Greenwood not see the wisdom in putting just a few of its slots dollars into a facility which is beyond decrepit?

I've long felt that the only way to make someone fall in love with racing is to get that person to a racetrack. So in some small measure, I think what happened at ACRC gives an ancillary benefit to the game as a whole. Because, despite spending a day in a relic of a racing plant, most everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.  

Many of those 8,000+ were newbies; some of those folks will become fans. And I think there's a reasonable chance they'll spend a day or two this summer at Monmouth, or Delaware, or Saratoga. Simply put, what you and I experienced on Saturday is good for the game.

27 Apr 2010 11:10 AM
Kevin A. Burke

TO: Pat Cummings

With all due respect, you don't get the point.

The story of Atlantic City Race Track is one of the purposeful destruction of a once beautiful, historic facility by a greed-based corporation. It is not about expansion. It is the story of a survivor who lives despite all attempts to kill her.  

Atlantic City is a viable and needed resource of the racing world. Despite the neglect shown to it, the allowed destruction of her physical plant, she refuses to die.  

Atlantic City Race Track is but one victim of combining slots/VLT based corporations with racetracks. There are other victims, and I fear many more to come.

These slots/VLT corporations use the racetrack to gain access to the gambling dollar, and public acceptance. Once they are entrenched they do not give a damn about Thoroughbred racing. They do not want the competition for the gambling dollar.  

When they gain control of a racing facility, they will in the future, and have in the past, do all in their power to eliminate them. Atlantic City Race Track is but one example of this greed.

The dollars these corporations buy advertising in newspapers and in the media, contribute to political campaigns, and support well-meaning but misinformed animal-rights groups. Using this good will, they use the above groups, and uncounted others i.e. (real estate), to destroy and eliminate the competition. This misdirection of attack by the slots/VLT corporations keeps them distanced from any direct charge of contributing to racing's demise.

Directly the needed dollars for physical upkeep are withheld by these corporations. In turn the physical plants of the racetracks fall into disrepair. This is done with purpose. The corporations know that no one wants to spend leisure time, or spend auxiliary dollars, at a ravaged ruin. Atlantic City is the unexplainable paradox to this.

The declining attendance is also caused by the lack of daily coverage in the media, which would help to expand the fan base. This declining attendance is then used as cause in the slow elimination of race dates. The downward spiral is exaggerated by perception, this a contribution of  the political greed and the politicians grab for the shared revenue dollars.

There are those in racing who feel they need the support of the slots/VLT dollars. Those that do should realize that the use of this crutch can result in amputation and not the healing of a broken bone. The Slots/VLT corporations know they are not racing's partner; racing needs to understand the same in reverse.

Thoroughbred racing can and must succeed on its own merits. Many things are needed to accomplish this. Publicity, fan-friendly accommodations, affordable economic beverages and food, and a thousand other tweaks and changes are needed, and will go a long way to help.

But ...

It is the history of Thoroughbred racing; the historic buildings that speak out to you as does Atlantic City, that are required for Thoroughbred racing to prosper. The history of and the physical plant of Atlantic City cannot be lost.

That is the point.

27 Apr 2010 11:36 AM
The_Knight_Sky racing blog

Thank you for the nice words for my blog piece, Kevin.

I hope to add more more pics to my Flickr account as time permits.

I agree with Pat Cummings when he wrote:

These types of meets are great--reproducing the same feeling will require MANY reductions in days and races--but that will substantially increase attendance, purses, handle (on the days that are run), and field sizes.

Less is more, more is less.

_______________

For too long various states have milked their racetracks for revenues from every pool, from every race, leaving the facility in dire need of repairs.  

The business end should not be neglected. Every racetrack should be allowed enough revenues to make the basic capital improvements for inviting the "guests." That is simple common sense and every racetrack should adhere to that.

27 Apr 2010 4:21 PM
murftheturf

ScottJ, I think you're on to something about the boutique meets. We'll see how Monmouth does this year with the concept, but it doesn't get any better than Saratoga and Keeneland. Hopefully Mth does well and the dreary Aqueduct winter meets can be ended. I'm convinced shorter and sweeter meets with better quality racing is the game's real salvation, not slots.      

27 Apr 2010 6:20 PM
ScottJ

Dear murftheturf and All: Following the posting on this blog, I also contacted Steve Byk (host of At-the-Races on Sirius/XM) to describe in detail the environment in which his horse, Kicking and Screaming, from the Dee Tee Stables was running. Further, I have also offered direct encouragement to Maureen Gallagher-Bugdon in her position with ACRC. Maureen was extremely excited not only to hear from me, but also about material that has appeared on Blood-Horse and beyond.  

While we have applauded the six day Turf-Festival meeting, those involved with ACRC for the other 359 days per year could use your support. A phone call reaching out with encouragement to Maureen and her staff will go a long way towards our keeping the momentum alive that has continued to build around the 2010 meeting at ACRC.

Sincerely, Scott Jeffreys

29 Apr 2010 3:21 PM

Recent Posts

More Blogs

Archives