New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and horse owners have reached a temporary deal to keep harness racing alive at Meadowlands through the spring, buying more time to convert from public to private the operations of the nation’s premier harness track.
Christie announced Dec. 17 that the state will allow Standardbred owners to negotiate a lease of the track that will be partially funded through off-track betting. The state will front owners a $1.2 million secured loan for the first quarter of 2011, ending April 1, to cover operating costs and allow the 2011 meet to start as planned Jan. 7, 2011.
The loan is secured using simulcast earnings to pay it back and gives horse owners and a real estate investor time to work out a permanent deal. If a deal is not reached by April, live racing at Meadowlands will shut down, with the possible exception of the Hambletonian Stakes meet in August.
The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority owns Meadowlands and Monmouth Park. Since taking office last year, the Republican governor has been looking for a way to get the state out of the horse racing business.
“We want to make sure racing continues, but we also want to make sure we keep faith by the taxpayers by making sure we do not have a subsidy going any further,” Christie said, adding that the agreements are subject to approval by the state New Jersey Racing Commission, NJSEA, and the state attorney general.
A commission appointed by Christie released a report Nov. 15 saying New Jersey cannot support two state-run tracks. It proposed ending live racing at Meadowlands and consolidating Thoroughbred and harness racing at Monmouth starting in 2011.
Developments this year indicate Thoroughbred racing won’t return to Meadowlands, which opened in 1976. All Thoroughbred racing in 2011 was held at Monmouth.
The commission’s plan also called for the two tracks to be sold to a private owner and for Meadowlands to be used as an off-track betting facility.
The deal announced Dec. 17 gives real estate investor Jeff Gural time to make a deal to privatize the struggling track. Gural owns Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs in upstate New York, and two horse farms.
“It’s very simple,” Gural said. “We’re trying to make it a fun experience rather than just a place to wager. We’ve developed a model that works up there and hopefully it will work down here.”
Gural said New Jersey’s dense population offers a serious advantage over his tracks but that there is also more competition. However, Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs offer other forms of gambling, something Christie said the state is not interested in allowing at this point.
Gural suggested a new, smaller grandstand be built on the opposite side of the one-mile racing surface where the barn area is located and the existing structure be demolished.
The Christie commission had proposed a shorter racing season, and the governor vetoed the schedule for racing at Meadowlands after a deal had not been reached.
Tom Luchento, president of the Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association of New Jersey, called the commission’s plan a death sentence for harness racing in New Jersey.
“While the deal with the governor to save Standardbred racing at the Meadowlands is not 100% perfect, it will provide our industry a temporary lifeline, giving us time to implement innovative changes that will foster self-sufficiency,” Luchento said.