Two men have taken control of horse racing in New Jersey

May 17, 2011 6:00 AM

Two men – personal friends and fellow New York real estate magnates, one of them an Atlantic City casino operator – have taken control of horse racing in New Jersey.

In doing so they have cast a new light on that state’s governor, Chris Christie, who through the early negotiations on privatization of Monmouth Park and the Meadowlands, appeared to be wearing a very dark hat. Now he suddenly emerges as a hero riding to the rescue.

Early on, listening to his strong adviser Jon Hanson, Gov. Christie was cast in demonic light, as a man intent on killing horse racing, both thoroughbred and harness, in the Garden State.

But listening to Jeff Gural, who is taking over personal control of the Meadowlands, in an interview last Friday night, a whole new picture of Christie emerged.

Gural met with the governor’s people last Thursday, in what turned out to be a brutally grinding all-day session.

The next night he went on television from the track, and interviewer Sam McKee, one of the track’s top flight announcers and one of the country’s best race callers, threw his new boss no puffballs.

He asked hard questions, and persisted when Gural clearly would have preferred to avoid them. But Gural, who from our personal association with him knows only one way to go – honest, transparent answers – did not duck.

He told McKee that the deal almost went down, and in the end it was Christie who saved it. Gural said at the end of the wearing daylong session last Thursday there still was a major issue that required some compromise.

He was literally putting on his coat as Jeff entered Christie’s office; he was leaving to go home. Gural said he would like to do the same, but needed a few minutes to talk. The governor laid his coat on a chair, and Gural addressed the issue of purses for the runners at Monmouth Park, which his friend Morris Bailey is taking over.

Christie said the issue had to be resolved, making it clear there would be no purse subsidies to either track from Atlantic City casinos – the governor’s pet project – and no slots at the Meadowlands, for fear of their impact on the 11 casinos in the shore resort.

Gural, sensing the end of months of hard work, figuratively reached in his pants pocket, and dug deep. He told Christie he would personally give Monmouth a million and a half in purse money – he already has committed a personal million to purses at the Meadowlands – to resolve the issue.

The two men shook hands, and unless the thoroughbred horsemen throw the issue of simulcasting into the stew (that issue still is unresolved as this is written, but will be voted on by the time you read this) the Jersey deal is done.

Thousands of horsemen and fans can breathe easy, and Gural says the governor is "one regular guy, down to earth and straightforward."

He also happens to be, as the Republican party searches frantically for someone to run against Barack Obama next year, a possible – may we say likely? – candidate.

Christie announced last week that he is not ready to run for president – at the moment – but he clearly has eyes on the job. He will need to establish himself overseas with some foreign experience, far beyond Trenton or Hoboken or Atlantic City, if he changes his mind or has it changed for him.

Don’t count him out. He runs for office as a populist candidate, talking to his listeners as just what Gural pronounced him to be, a regular one-of-the-gang guy. If he runs for the big job, either next year or in 2016, and can convince enough people he isn’t a dangerous despot with his strong black or white ideas – he is not a guy who thinks or talks in grays – you will be hearing more from him and about him.