Organizations representing owners and breeders in New Jersey blasted the latest recommendations from a commission created by Republican Gov. Chris Christie, saying the plans would destroy racing and breeding in the state. The groups indicated litigation is a possibility.
The Christie commission drew fire earlier this year when it issued a report suggesting ways to improve the racing and gaming businesses in New Jersey. On Nov. 15, a follow-up memorandum from committee chairman Jon Hanson called for closure of Meadowlands, consolidation of Thoroughbred—only 59 days of racing—and harness racing at Monmouth Park, and the state’s sale of Monmouth and related businesses to private operators.
The horse industry has looked at all the recommendations with a skeptical eye, noting Hanson is a developer who called Meadowlands—a sports complex with its own exit off the busy New Jersey Turnpike not far from New York City—the state’s most attractive developable property.
“The most recent recommendations from chairman Hanson would destroy Thoroughbred racing and breeding in New Jersey,” New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association president John Forbes said. “A solid live-racing calendar with ample racing opportunities is the foundation this industry is built on. Live racing is the lifeblood of our industry.
“To reduce our calendar from the statutory requirement of 141 days to 59 would take away too many jobs from New Jersey citizens working in the horse racing industry. For this reason, these workers would have no choice but to leave New Jersey and live, work, and race in surrounding states that schedule year-round Thoroughbred racing with solid purses supported by numerous revenue streams, including casino wagering and slot machine wagering at racetracks.”
The Hanson report said it continued to study the issue after its initial recommendations were released during the summer. In the end, the report said: “After considering numerous financial models, we have reached the conclusion that there is no viable self-sustaining industry model based upon two government-operated racetracks.”
The initial report called for an end to purse supplements from the state’s casino industry, which made the payments to keep racing interests from lobbying for gaming. The Nov. 15 memorandum, however, suggests short-term funding would be made available—if the industry agrees to the drastic cutbacks.
The Thoroughbred Breeders Association of New Jersey called the recommendations unacceptable, noting incentives to breed racehorses are tied to racing dates and purses.
“Why would a New Jersey-based breeder keep their horses or farms in New Jersey if there aren’t enough opportunities to receive a return on their investment?” TBANJ president Tom Swales said. “The answer is they won’t. New Jersey is surrounded by racing states including New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware where there is a proven commitment to their horse racing and breeding industry by state government.
“These are states that enable live racing to succeed, which in turn allows breeding to thrive, and breeders to earn a return on their investment. Without adequate live racing opportunities, existing, productive farmland will lose value, and New Jersey will be left with nothing but land ripe for commercial development by individuals such as Jon Hanson, who have made their living for decades off the build-out of open space and farmland.”
The plan to race only 30 harness dates at Monmouth after 2011 drew a sharp response from the Standardbred Owners and Breeders Association of New Jersey, which supports a Meadowlands expansion with gaming and a stronger racing program, not closure of the facility.
“Suggesting that we can race 30 days at Monmouth Park is unacceptable,” SBOANJ president Tom Luchento said. “We raced 141 days this year—you cannot expect our drivers, trainers, and breeding industry to survive on 30 days of racing. You cannot ask us to give up the Meadowlands, the premier harness track in North America.
“We feel we are being blindsided. Jon Hanson is a real estate developer, which seems to be his only concern, developing the property on which the Meadowlands sits. The plan he issued in July did not pass muster with the legislators and the public. The people of New Jersey support racing and gaming. Instead of finding ways to cut us out, the state should be making it more attractive for us to stay. Some of our major breeding farms are already making plans to move their stallions to states that have purse money fueled by slots.”
The timing of the memorandum was questioned as well. Lawmakers and the racing industry are working to pass legislation that would assist horse racing and breeding through various means. In addition, Thoroughbred and Standardbred interests have acknowledged a need for change and support a schedule with fewer racing dates and higher purses.
There are complications under New Jersey statute, which requires 141 Thoroughbred dates per year through 2016, and no less than 120 days thereafter. The parameters were adopted in 2004 via a court settlement; if Monmouth and Meadowlands are sold, a new owner must adhere to the agreement.
Thoroughbred interests agreed to race only 71 days this year under a deal with the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which operates the two tracks. The legislature approved the cutback, but only for 2010 pending further action.
The 50-day summer meet at Monmouth was considered a success, though the Hanson committee claims Monmouth this year will lose $6 million. The latest memorandum offers no financial breakdown explaining the alleged loss as well as claims Meadowlands will loses $11 million this year.
The New Jersey THA and TBANJ claim the NJSEA has “consistently violated” the terms of the 2004 agreement.
The groups said they have considered a consolidation of both breeds at Monmouth as a way to save the state money, but such a scenario isn’t ideal.
“We were willing to embrace the idea if it was done correctly, and providing that it did not negatively impact either breed,” Forbes said. “In no way did it mean we would accept a reduction of the statutory 141 days of live Thoroughbred racing. We are willing to work with Gov. Christie and Mr. Hanson to further study this concept as long as the overall result is in no way detrimental to New Jersey’s racing and breeding industry.”
Under the statute, operation of New Jersey’s off-track betting and advance deposit wagering system are tied to live racing dates. Forbes said litigation is an option as is horsemen exercising their rights under the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978 to halt export of the New Jersey racing signal; if that were to occur, horsemen in other states could block signals from entering New Jersey, he said.
“No one in the Thoroughbred industry wants any of this to happen,” Forbes said. “In fact, we are saddened by the lack of commitment to our long-term viability shown by the appointees of the executive branch (of New Jersey government).”
Luchento said horse racing in New Jersey doesn’t lose money.
“It is not our fault that the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority is losing money,” he said. “They have had to take on projects at the request of a succession of governors. These were money-losers. We have been working with our legislators to put together a package of bills that will make it possible for racing to be self-supporting by 2013.
“The Hanson report ignores these plans and disregards the efforts of the senators and Assembly members. We hope that Gov. Chris Christie will take the time to listen to our ideas and reject the Hanson report. Failing to do so will open up a can of worms, including legal action.”