N.J. tracks ask: ‘Where is Georgie Boy when you need him?’

January 15, 2008 5:36 AM
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The original Battle of Trenton, without which it is unlikely there would be a United States of America today, was a surprise attack by George Washington’s motley army on the Hessian garrison holding the town early on the morning following Christmas, 1776. Thanks to sailors from Marblehead, Massachusetts, who ferried 2,400 men, some horses, and 18 cannon across the Delaware River in a blinding snow and sleet storm between 6 pm and 4 am the next morning, and the courage of those suffering, ill-clothed and poorly fed troops, the British’s Hessian mercenaries were driven out of Trenton and the morale of Americans raised to continue what had been to that moment a failing revolution.

There is another Battle of Trenton being fought today, and just as their ancestors 232 years ago, the people who race horses in New Jersey are near defeat.

There are no Hessians in sight this time, just the casino operators of Atlantic City, who have dug in and are determined not to let the race track regulars of New Jersey capture the casinos’ most prized possessions: slot machines.

There was no governor of New Jersey in 1776. There is now, the multimillionaire Jon Corzine. You don’t make millions without pragmatism and realism, and you don’t become governor without knowing where the power lies.

Corzine has played along with the racetrackers’arguments. He acknowledges their status on the national racing scene, particularly in harness racing, where the nation’s flagship harness track, The Meadowlands, operates less than 10 miles from Times Square in New York, and in the heart of New York’s bedroom suburbs in Jersey. He also recognizes their contributions to the green environment of New Jersey. It is, after all, the Garden State, despite the image those who fly into Newark airport may have of oil and gas tanks and bustling docks.

Corzine has played it cute. He tells the race track folks he understands their concerns and shares them. But he lets the Atlantic City crowd know he doesn’t plan to do much about it. For four years the casinos paid a multimillion dollar annual subsidy to help restore some of the riches they took from racing when slots were legalized 30 years ago.

The battle grew fierce on January 1, when the casino subsidy expired. It has not been restored as of two weeks later, and slots at tracks are no closer than last year.

They are, in fact, farther distant, because of a statistic that cropped up last week that brought distress and dismay to the Boardwalk.

For the first time in the 29 years of Atlantic City gaming, the casinos won less than they had the year before. An unbroken upward chart line suddenly dropped 5.7%.

Everything is relative, of course, and casino win still amounted to $4.8 billion last year. But the casinos are worried. Pennsylvania’s new slots at racinos and casinos are just heating up, with more to come. A no-smoking ban has hurt. Carlos Tolosa, president of Harrah’s Entertainment’s eastern division, called it "a shock —a slap on the side of the head for anyone who owns a casino in town."

Harrah’s owns four, including the Marina, Showboat, Caesars and Bally’s. They are not inconsequential, accounting for 44% of Atlantic City’s revenues last year. Caesars and the Marina were up, Caesars a healthy 5.1% and Harrah’s Marina 2.1%, but Tolosa told Philly.com, "This was a wake-up call for everybody that we have to continue to build nongaming attractions and convert this resort town into a destination”¦..and that we have a long way to go."

Las Vegas operators could have told him that, years ago.

In Atlantic City, even ebullient Donald Trump is worried. He has three A.C. properties — Trump Taj Mahal, Trump Marina and Trump Plaza — and he said the smoking ban had as much to do with the drop as Pennsylvania and other neighboring states’ competition. It is not likely, however, that once a smoking ban has been imposed by government for health reasons, that public servants are going to stand up and rescind the ban.

Except, of course, that this is Atlantic City, New Jersey, where the casinos call the shots.

If you don’t think so, ask the folks who run the farms and feed the horses and pay for their care and help keep New Jersey green, both ecologically and economically.

They haven’t had to cross the Delaware yet, but with Pennsylvania racing booming with slots, they may test the waters in increasing numbers.