Racing suffers

Jul 27, 2010 7:04 AM

It’s high price to mollify AC’s 11 casinos

The state of New Jersey, floundering around seeking to solve its financial woes, has hit on a solution.

It has decided to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and walk away from horse racing.

In thrall to its casino industry and decaying Atlantic City, the state has threatened to close the Meadowlands, the world capital of harness racing, or privatize it and its sister thoroughbred track Monmouth Park. One thing it refuses to do is the one thing that could save racing in New Jersey, which would be to let the state’s four tracks – or three if you didn’t want to include Atlantic City Racecourse – have slots.

More stories by Stan Bergstein

The 11 casinos in Atlantic City cry poormouth, but they strike fear and in effect represent a shadow government in Trenton, the state capital.

Privatizing racing may sound attractive until you look at the current situation. New Jersey is surrounded by three states – New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware – all with slots at their racetrack racinos. One might think New Jersey would want to keep its players at home instead of pouring money into the treasuries of their neighbors, but the power of the Atlantic City casinos overcomes the practicality of common sense.

The governor, Chris Christie, appointed a study commission headed by Jon Hanson, a former head of the state’s Sports and Exposition Authority, which controls the Meadowlands, Monmouth Park, a football stadium, a basketball arena, an aquarium and an Atlantic City convention center. Hanson now wants to dismantle his former fiefdom and turn it into a landlord.

For whom?

The governor’s commission has suggested leasing the Meadowlands, a giant and expensive track to run, to the New Jersey Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association, the harness racing association in the state, for $1 a year on a three-year lease.

How and why would that organization buy that proposal, without slots and without a current $30 million a year subsidy for the Meadowlands and Monmouth Park from the Atlantic City casinos?

As for sale to big commercial racing interests, such as Penn National, there is no way smart and aggressive operators like Peter Carlino, that company’s founder and leader, are going to buy a racetrack while being told there is no chance to get slots or alternative gaming there.

The consequences of this fiasco are life threatening, not only to New Jersey’s struggling tracks but to racing elsewhere. And not only to racing, but to the thousands who depend on it for a living: breeders, trainers, drivers, jockeys, veterinarians, feed operators, trucking companies and in many cases small owners.

But it is not only a threat to those involved in New Jersey. The domino effect of closure to the Meadowlands would, for example, impact every other harness operation in the United States, particularly those who now live off the Meadowlands simulcast signals.

All of this certainly is known to the governor and to his commission, but in their haste to kiss their casino cousins they are willing to ignore an industry that employs thousands in the state.

They have opted instead to ignore racing and reinvigorate Atlantic City, not by rebuilding the slum-torn backdrop to the shining Boardwalk casinos, but by taking over policing and administration of a city within a city. How that will make the rundown shore retreat more attractive to those who once sought its attractions, or even to those who now patronize its diminishing gambling, is unanswered.

An even bigger mystery is how all of harness racing nationally has not unified to develop a groundswell of opposition to the state’s ideas. A gaming summit will meet on Aug. 6, but the site and the leaders tell that farcical story. The meeting will be held in Atlantic City, and the co-chairman is state senator Jim Whelan, a former mayor of the shore resort.

The casino operators know what that spells. It’s known in those circles as a stacked deck.