Garden Plot - by Tom LaMarra

The large concrete apron was cracked in numerous places. The infield tote board was boarded up. The interior of the first-floor grandstand looked and smelled like it did in the 1970s. The near-abandoned barn area resembled something out of a horror movie.

But there was Thoroughbred racing, and there were people—3,000 was a good guesstimate—old-timers, 20-somethings, and kids who showed up at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday in late April. The crowd was larger than the one at Belmont Park the same day. Lines at the betting windows were long.

I had to laugh. Atlantic City Race Course, located only 14 miles from a bunch of casinos on the South Jersey coast, was supposed to be the first track in the area to go under because of competition for the gambling dollar. Welcome to New Jersey.

The six-day Atlantic City turf meet last year was, fittingly, a highlight in New Jersey, where horse racing has a habit of inflicting its own wounds. The Monmouth Park meet drags on and is not so special anymore, while the Meadowlands fall meet might not exist if not for an influential politician from North Jersey.

Much of 2008 was spent haggling over a casino purse supplement and debating whether Atlantic City should get a couple of million dollars from it to support a 20-day meet mandated by the New Jersey Racing Commission.

Atlantic City didn’t get the money, but it did get another reprieve—six racing days for 2009 and strong suggestions it needs to upgrade its facility, add dates, and prove it wants to be a viable part of New Jersey racing. All of this is long overdue.

If you read the Newark Star-Ledger, the state’s largest newspaper, you’d think horse racing in New Jersey is near death. A lengthy article that appeared late last year basically asked how much longer it can exist in its current state.

Sure, overall business is down. But according to the racing commission’s annual report for 2007, total pari-mutuel wagering in the state was $876 million, with another $554 million bet on New Jersey races outside the state. Of the $876 million, the statewide account wagering system generated about $76 million in handle, and race books at Atlantic City casinos $110 million.

Those numbers aren’t too bad given all the gloom and doom we hear.

On-track attendance continues to decline, but Monmouth has shown it can still draw 50,000 for the Haskell Invitational Stakes (gr. I) and Meadowlands 25,000 for the Hambletonian harness race on the same weekend. And the new off-track betting parlors in the state are another bright spot; on a recent visit to Favorites at Woodbridge, I found one of the most comfortable, functional, classy—and crowded—OTB facilities I’ve seen in the country.

So racing in the Garden State is dying? Please. Does New Jersey racing need on-track gaming machines? It wouldn’t hurt. Can anything else be done in the interim? Yes—a plan, and a pledge from racing to stop getting in its own way.

Dwelling on the past is bad, but learning from it is good. New Jersey didn’t capitalize on hosting the Breeders’ Cup in 2007, but it should have at least gotten a reminder: Big events—and short meets—work.

Atlantic City will never be what it once was, and that’s OK. But after seeing firsthand those short spring meets that, thus far, have been held only to keep a simulcast license, I can’t help but think how good it could be for New Jersey, its racing program, and introducing people to racing.

Think about it—3,000 people on hand on a late Wednesday afternoon at a racetrack 20 minutes from the casinos. Hello. Somebody’s doing something right, even if it’s by accident. Imagine if the state’s racing industry took it seriously.

Here’s a rough outline of a plan: May at Atlantic City; June, July, and August at Monmouth; September at Atlantic City; and October and November at Meadowlands. Keep things fresh. Focus on special events.

Members of my immediate family are natives of South Jersey. Growing up, I probably spent too much time at Atlantic City, but my older brother and sister never set foot on the property—and my sister has lived 10 miles from the joint for 30 years.

Last April they came to the track with me for one of the six racing days. They enjoyed it so much they want to go back this year. I had to laugh, again. Of all the places to find a little hope for the game.

Tom LaMarra, a Jersey native, is news editor of The Blood-Horse.

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