Plenty at stake with racinos

It's not exactly the best time to be running a gambling operation in New Jersey. A racino, a harness track near Philadelphia, has already opened in Pennsylvania and there are many more slots operations to come in the Keystone State. Slots are on there way in New York, too. Just 12 minutes from the New Jersey border, Yonkers Raceway will soon open its slots operation, and throngs of North Jersey gamblers are sure to be among the clientele.

The Atlantic City casinos and the New Jersey racing industry is about to get hit with a double whammy and it's not going to be pretty, especially for horse racing. The already struggling New Jersey thoroughbred industry is soon going to have an impossible time competing for horses with Philadelphia Park, where the purses are going to be astronomical once the slots starting rolling.

Of course, there's a simple solution to this: with no chance to beat them, join them. Turning New Jersey racetracks, in particular the Meadowlands, into racinos is a no-brainer. Done right, it would benefit racing and the Atlantic City casinos and keep New Jersey gamblers from crossing the Hudson and Delaware rivers to lose their money.

But, even with slots at racetracks in New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia, New Jersey refuses to get with program. The problem? The New Jersey casino lobby stubbornly and foolishly refuses to allow the state's tracks to add slot machines to the gambling menu. With its political clout, Atlantic City might just keep slots out of the tracks forever.

Atlantic City believes that placing slot machines at the Jersey tracks can only harm the Jersey casinos. It's a short-sighted, ignorant and even hypocritical position.

The New Jersey racing industry is battling to have slots at the Meadowlands and isn't actively pursuing them at Monmouth, Atlantic City Race Course or Freehold Raceway, a harness track. The reasoning is that getting slots into the Big M shouldn't be that tough because they can only help racing and the casinos.

The type of person who is likely to show up to play slot machines at the Meadowlands is a nearby New Jersey resident who likes slots and isn't that interested in the wider gambling and entertainment experience that Atlantic City provides. Once Yonkers Raceway opens up its slot operation, that person is far more likely to go there than to travel the 125 miles or so down the Garden State Parkway to Atlantic City. So, why not keep them closer to home and let them waste their money playing Meadowlands, and not Yonkers, slots?

The New Jersey racing industry is willing to let the Jersey casinos run the slots operation at the Meadowlands and rake in most of the profits, which would amount to a large fortune. For the perfect paradigm, all they have to do is look at what's happening across the border in Canada. There, the local lottery commission runs the slots operation at Woodbine. The track and horsemen have stepped aside in exchange for 20 percent of the slots profits, half of which go to the track and half of which go toward purses. A similar set up in New Jersey would make a ton of money for the casino industry, far more than they would lose because some customers would no longer be making the trip down to Atlantic City.

"The casino industry is very reactive," said Michael Harrison, the president of the Thoroughbred Breeders Association of New Jersey Thoroughbred. "They have always been that way. They have their franchise and they believe they are not going to be hurt by the racinos (in New York) or that they'll be hurt less than they would if they were to put slots in at the Meadowlands. They're just wrong."

Yet, still the casino boys fight on. That includes Harrah's, which owns two Atlantic City casinos. They say that slots at the Meadowlands will kill them, yet they own the harness track/racino in Chester, Pennsylvania that just opened. That means they are okay with having slots at a Pennsylvania racetrack that is 75 miles from Atlantic City but have a problem with slots coming on board at a racetrack that is 125 miles from A.C. Good grief.

It's not that the casino industry has done nothing for the New Jersey racing industry. It makes an annual contribution to purses at both the standardbred and thoroughbred tracks and that has helped Monmouth Park increase total daily average purses to a healthy $330,000. They don't do it because they are nice guys but because it helps keep the politicians off their back on the issue of slots at the tracks. The purse supplement expires at the end of 2007 and there's no telling whether or not the politicians can wrestle more money out of the casinos for racing.

But even another round of casino-funded purse supplements won't be enough. Not when Philly Park is about to emerge as a major player in horse racing. Not when Aqueduct will eventually have slots, despite the best efforts of anti-NYRA politicians to keep them away. Not when Delaware Park already has slots and big purses. Not when the New Jersey racing industry has already been hit hard and hardly a day goes by when a beautiful horse farm somewhere can't make it and is turned into a cookie-cutter condo development.

New Jersey racing needs slots and the casino industry needs to dump an anti-racino policy that hurts everyone. The very survival of thoroughbred racing in the state may be at stake.