New Jersey racing needs Gov. Corzine to pressure casinos

Feb 13, 2008 2:47 AM

Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein | I lived in New Jersey under four governors and know a fifth as a personal friend, so I understand a little of the lives they live.

They reside in an elegant governor’s mansion in Princeton named Drumthwhacket, built in 1835. Their state capital is in nearby historic Trenton. And their marching orders, or a large measure of them, for practical purposes, come from Atlantic City.

This is not to say the governors are servile to the casino bosses of the coast resort. They are too big and too important for that. It is merely to say that in New Jersey, the Atlantic City casinos get pretty much what they want. Not everything, and not all the time. But the governors are kept acutely aware of what the casinos would like, and if they can let them have it without another Revolutionary War that provided New Jersey with some of its most significant monuments – George Washington’s winter encampment at Morristown and the battles of Trenton and Princeton among them – they oblige.

New Jersey also has had a thriving horse racing industry, and some of the prettiest horse country in the east, never seen by those who fly into the docks and dreariness of Newark Airport.

The horse industry boomed 32 years ago, when the late impresario Sonny Werblin got the idea of building The Meadowlands on swampland near East Rutherford. It also was near Times Square in New York City – five miles or less away thru the Lincoln Tunnel – and it became an instant roaring success, with the racetrack, Continental Airlines arena (formerly Brendan Byrne arena named for one of the governors who helped Werblin make the dream come true) and the football stadium that has been the home field of the New York Giants.

The racetrack paid the rent for the Complex, and offered both thoroughbred racing and the best harness racing in the world. Located in the heart of one of the biggest bedroom suburbs in the country, the sport took off at once, The track acquired harness racing’s best known race, the Hambletonian. Its sister track at the shore, beautiful Monmouth Park, became a summer pleasure dome, and hosted last fall’s rain-drenched two-day Breeders’ Cup festival.

After the Meadowlands was built, casino gaming was legalized for Atlantic City, and the casinos began building in earnest, leaving the shell of Atlantic City’s poverty behind the façade of its gleaming boardwalk betting palaces.

Business began falling off at the state’s three tracks – the Meadowlands, Monmouth and nearby Freehold Raceway, which calls itself The Afternoon Delight.

Five years ago the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which runs the Meadowlands and Monmouth Park, the basketball and hockey arena and football stadium, and an aquarium in Camden, and is a quasi-state agency, went to Trenton and sought and found help.

Since racing was there first and the casinos cut sharply into the state’s agricultural industry spawned by the racetracks, with farms and training centers all over the state, a deal was cut.

The tracks, seeking slots, would back off for four years for an annual subsidy payment of $20 million, an $80 million package. It was well worth it to the casinos, which retained their monopoly of the New York metropolitan market lying at the Meadowlands’ doorstep.

The subsidy arrangement ended Dec. 31, and the casinos decided they did not want to renew it.

Enter Jon Corzine, New Jersey’s very wealthy governor-businessman. He was besieged by the deeply concerned racing interests, who told him honestly and convincingly of the huge environmental and agricultural contributions of the racing industry, harness and thoroughbred, to New Jersey.

Corzine promised to help, but the casinos resisted. They still were resisting as late as last weekend, although Corzine began applying the pressure of his lofty position. The president of the Senate and former governor, Richard Codey, is a racing fan, and his brother Don runs Freehold Raceway. Given that, the fact that the subsidy issue has not been settled long ago gives an idea of the power of the casino kingpins who run Atlantic City.

Last week New Jersey legislators – or at least the majority of them in the Assembly – voted to legalize sports betting in the state, and threw a bone to the tracks by cutting them in on the deal.

There is, of course, one slight problem: sports betting, according to federal law, is legal in only four states in the union – Nevada, naturally, and Delaware, Oregon and Montana. Maybe there will be another Revolutionary War.

Meanwhile, as this week dawned, everyone looked to Drumthawacket, and the man who lives there, hoping he will use his strength and business skills to solve this mess.