Meadowlands losing quality

Nov 19, 2002 8:05 AM

It began more than a quarter-century ago when New Jersey made a play to lure sports teams from neighboring New York City. Established to be the cash cow for the enterprise was the Meadowlands racetrack, a major pari-mutuel operation that was about 11 minutes from Times Square through the Lincoln Tunnel.

The facility, later to be the venue for several professional sports teams, was owned by the N.J. Sports and Exposition Authority.

The operation preceded the Atlantic City casinos so business was hugely successful right from the start. Thoroughbred racing lagged a bit since it was conducted at night whereas the industry, for the most part, held its racing in the afternoons.

But, harness racing fell right into its element and within months, the Meadowlands Trots became the premier facility in North America. Soon, it not only staged races with the largest purses ”” an unheard of million dollar purse was offered for two-year-olds ”” but it also became host to the prestigious Hambletonian.

Business began declining with the development of the Boardwalk’s casinos with daily average handles dropping as the competition increased. In the 1990’s, the Meadowlands had an additional assault on its business with the establishment of the Connecticut casinos.

Recently, the track completed its annual Thoroughbred meeting and immediately track officials began apologizing for "the poor quality of racing." In fact, Bruce Garland who runs the track for the N.J. Sports and Exposition Authority, called the meeting "a disaster."

The decline in purses is the culprit, officials said, and decried a state law that requires the track to race a specified number of days each year, a factor that contributes to poor racing. In the near term, the track would like to cut back on its racing schedule but a more important fix would come from the addition of slot machines.

That hope, however, is given little chance of happening. Said one official, "With the lobbying power of such companies as Park Place Entertainment, Harrah’s Entertainment and MGM MIRAGE, there is little likelihood that state officials will bow to the concerns of the Meadowlands."

So, a racetrack that once led the industry, can now look forward to a continuing decline until state officials decide to find another use for the property.