Though New Jersey Thoroughbred racing has a long way to go from a financial perspective, some racetrack operators and horsemen's representatives appear bullish on the future.
"Racing is here to stay," said Dennis Drazin, a consultant for Darby Development and the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which jointly operate Monmouth Park. "Those who think it's not should go talk to Mark Twain."
The death of New Jersey horse racing has been greatly exaggerated, but its struggles have been well-documented. The New Jersey Racing Commission at its November meeting noted the four tracks in the state reported "losses" for 2012: Monmouth, $10 million; Freehold Raceway, $3.6 million; New Meadowlands, $2.3 million; and Atlantic City Race Course, $1.2 million.
"Each racetrack has submitted documentation of financial distress," NJRC executive director Frank Zanzuccki said.
It isn't clear whether the losses were solely tied to live horse racing operations; Atlantic City, for instance, is said to have made some money on its six-day meet this year. Other track officials indicated there has been improvement in the bottom line in 2013.
Monmouth, the state's flagship Thoroughbred track, and New Meadowlands are under lease from the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which "privatized" the tracks under order from Gov. Chris Christie. Both tracks were once cash cows for the NJSEA, which used racing profits for other projects under its purview.
"We were up in attendance and handle this year," Drazin said Nov. 23 at New Meadowlands, which held its first live harness racing program at its new $88 million facility that evening. "We've cut significantly into the state losses, and we're getting started on a new off-track wagering facility in Hillsborough Township."
Other projects in the works at Monmouth are construction of the "William Hill Sports Bar," which would be the location for sports betting should New Jersey prevail in a protracted court battle; a concert venue; a new restaurant on the property; other development in partnership with casino and Thoroughbred owner Morris Bailey; and the opening of the first "EZ Bet" OTW at a restaurant in Clfiton.
"We're stable, viable, and self-sufficient," Drazin said. "We're excited about our future."
In what could be considered a positive sign, no New Jersey racetrack applied for fewer dates in 2014. There will be a slight shift, however: four days at Monmouth will move to New Meadowlands, which will offer 14 all-turf programs, up from 10 this year.
At the request of the New Jersey THA, the turf races will be held under the lights in 2014, and there could be more than six races per program.
"We're looking forward to racing here next year," Drazin said of New Meadowlands. "I think the night signal is the place to go. (Owner Jeff Gural) and I have talked about it, and we'd like to do more than six races a night (depending on how the grass course is managed)."
Drazin said he sees an expansion of Thoroughbred racing at Meadowlands, which at one time held a regular meet from early September through early December. He said ideally there would be turf and dirt racing; conversion of the main track would cost $250,000-$300,000.
"Hopefully we'll eventually have the revenue for it," Drazin said. "I think it's in our future."
Other options include alternating Thoroughbred turf races and harness races at New Meadowlands to accommodate "both sets of fans at the same time," he said.
On Nov. 12 the state Attorney General's office gave final approval for Freehold Raceway to open an OTW facility at the former Stone Grill restaurant in Gloucester Township in Camden County. The facility will be operated by Freehold Raceway co-owner Penn National Gaming Inc.
PNGI vice president of racing Chris McErlean said the facility could be open in the first quarter of 2014. The project has been in the works for more than a year.
As for racetrack gaming in New Jersey, much depends on the health of the Atlantic City casinos in the next few years. They continue to report revenue declines in the face of competition from casinos in neighboring states; Drazin and other racing supporters believe the state General Assembly will eventually have to take action.
"I think eventually racetracks will have slots, and perhaps full casinos," Drazin said, "but I expect we'll get a lot of competition from Atlantic City. Maybe other areas would get gaming, and it wouldn't be limited to racetracks."
Republican Assemblyman Ron Dancer has introduced legislation calling for a constitutional amendment on slot machines at the state's four racetracks. Dancer in a statement said racetrack slots "would provide an opportunity for casino operators to expand beyond the boundaries of Atlantic City and reach patrons who may not otherwise considering traveling to Atlantic City to engage in gambling activities."
There is a belief that in order for racetrack gaming to become a reality, casinos currently located in New Jersey would have to be involved.
Prior bills in New Jersey have focused on the Meadowlands sports complex as a prime location for casino gambling given its proximity to New York City.