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.