New Jersey horse racing began a new chapter the evening of Nov. 23 amid snow squalls and a wind-chill factor in the teens. And no one seemed to mind.
New Meadowlands, which cost about $88 million to build, held its first live harness racing program. The facility, which has a dining and sports bar focus, is about one-third the size of the original Meadowlands, which hulks over what used to be the homestretch and is now the backstretch.
The New Meadowlands Grandstand/Clubhouse
Total pari-mutuel handle on a 13-race card was $2.96 million. On-track handle on live races only came in at $513,000. The amount bet in the new building on live races and full-card simulcasts in the afternoon and evening Saturday was more than $1.25 million.
It's a far cry from the years when Meadowlands was the largest outlet in the United States in terms of annual wagering–more than $650 million. But the Nov. 23 numbers were among the highest recorded for a track of any breed; many Thoroughbred tracks would kill for a half-million dollars in handle on live races and more than $700,000 on simulcasts on one day.
This is the new reality: a right-sized racetrack. New Meadowlands is built for the average crowd of 3,000 but large enough–including outdoor seating and an under-construction picnic-type area–to accommodate five or six times that number in good weather.
Not all the reviews were positive, of course; remember this is a racetrack, where critiques are as common as tips on horses. The regulars who pushed money through the windows most days in the circa-1976 facility will need some time to adjust.
But New Meadowlands could have worse problems than perhaps having to expand its simulcast areas to accommodate bettors more comfortably. A more pressing issue is keeping major-league harness racing relevant and cultivating potential bettors.
Jeff Gural, who put together the group that opted to lease Meadowlands when the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority wanted out of the racing business, has a plan. Another major hurdle–opening New Meadowlands on time–was cleared.
"I had no idea what (size crowd) to expect tonight," Gural said early in the card as a snow squall blew through. "We don't have a very big ad budget."
Attendance was estimated at 15,000; the crowd seemed smaller than that. But even if it was only 8,000, the vibe was there. Despite the conditions, people made their way to the apron for every live race.
The people came out despite the weather.
"It's critical–if the track is the right size, it seems crowded," Gural said. "You can't expect people to come to empty racetracks. (The New York Racing Association) is going to have to do something like this. Having tracks with 2,000 people when they can hold 100,000 just can't work."
Some would say Gural is nuts for spending $88 million on a facility whose revenue comes only from pari-mutuel wagering and food and beverage sales. He laughed in agreement when it was suggested New Meadowlands will be the last track built in North America without some sort of casino ties.
"I think–and forget me–the industry has to promote itself," said Gural, who also breeds and owns Standardbreds. "It needs to use some of that slot machine money for marketing, or it has no future."
Gural, who keeps abreast with what's happening in Thoroughbred racing, noted Standardbred racing came up with plan for incentives to keep 3-year-olds racing into their 4-year-old year. Not everyone agrees, but there has been progress; this year's pacing group of "older horses," as they're called, has been one of the best in a long time.
"Thoroughbred racing should do the same thing," Gural said. "Retiring horses at 3 is a recipe for disaster. Look at ratings for the Breeders' Cup with Zenyatta and without Zenyatta. It's so simple but the industry can't figure it out.
"Breeders have no incentive to get to people to the racetrack. Why racetracks care so much about breeders, I don't know."
Meanwhile, it appears New Meadowlands will be holding more Thoroughbred races–at least on the turf–according to Dennis Drazin, the Monmouth Park consultant who was an invited guest of Gural for opening night.
New Meadowlands was approved for 14 programs in September and October next year; Drazin said he believes that number will eventually grow as more revenue becomes available at the now privately run racetracks in the state.
"I think it's in the future," Drazin said.