Commission to N.J. racing: Drop dead

When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie put together something called the New Jersey Gaming, Sports and Entertainment Advisory Commission and asked it to come up with solutions for the many thorny issues facing the state's gambling interests, the horse racing industry knew it might be in for a hard time. Not only were the Meadowlands and Monmouth, both state-owned tracks, losing money the state couldn't afford to lose, but also the deck figured to be stacked in favor of the powerful Atlantic City casino interests. In New Jersey, it always is.

But no one could have expected what was to come out of the commission, a report that figures to have devastating consequences for New Jersey racing, particularly the harness industry. The commission didn't come up with one thing to help horse racing or even a hint of a solution. Rather, it says the way to fix things is to kill the game.

And Christie is on board: "This report is a blueprint that will guide our efforts in managing and protecting our gaming, sports and entertainment resources more responsibly and reforming issues critical to New Jersey's economic future," he said in a statement.

The easiest way to fix racing in New Jersey would be to jump on the slots machine bandwagon and bring them to the Meadowlands, where a casino in one of the most densely populated areas in the country would no doubt be wildly successful. The Atlantic City lobby has always been against that, so few racing people expected the commission or Christie to deliver slots. But most thought they would come up with something to help racing, which not only has a long history in New Jersey but is vital to the state's economy because it provides thousands of jobs and preserves green space, something there isn't nearly enough of in the "Garden State."

But there wasn't even a crumb. The commission basically told the harness industry it is on its own. It can either lease the Meadowlands for $1 or let the place close. It also came up with other proposals, like holding a harness meet at Monmouth or creating a small track at one of the state's training centers. Whatever direction the harness industry goes, the end result will either be no racing or minor league racing that bears no resemblance to the quality product that has made the Meadowlands the center of the harness racing universe.

Apparently, Christie hates Monmouth Park less than he hates harness racing. His minions on the commissions weren't quite so harsh on Monmouth and didn't call for it to shut down. Then again, thoroughbred racing in New Jersey also has plenty of problems. The commission said the days of the casinos helping fund the purses through a subsidy are over. Once that subsidy is gone, Monmouth can't possibly maintain the purse structure that has made the 2010 meet a smashing success. Its future? Who knows?

Perhaps horse racing has no right to expect a handout from the state or anyone else, especially in these difficult economic times. The game indeed needs to find ways to get back on its feet and be self-sufficient.

But the industry does have a right to be treated fairly. What is so galling about the report is that it plays up to the casino guys and makes it clear that the state will roll over and do everything it can to make Atlantic City thrive again. The state is willing to go so far to help Atlantic City that it is exploring taking over the area where the casinos are located. If all this means killing horse racing in the process, too bad.

Like New Jersey racing, the Atlantic City casinos are in trouble and need help. Casinos and racinos in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York that have come on the scene in recent years surround Atlantic City. People choose convenience when deciding where to gamble, and that's what's killing A.C. The most obvious solution is to join forces with racing and open a casino at the Meadowlands. There'd be more than enough money to go around to satisfy everyone and to revive both the racing and casino industries in the state. Even the state, which is supposedly so desperate for money, can benefit by taking its slice of what would be a big, fat slots pie out at the Meadowlands.

But Atlantic City doesn't want that. Their game plan is obvious: they want to kill horse racing in New Jersey and when that is accomplished they can move into the North Jersey market and not have to share their profits with racing. It's called greed.

It's Christie's job to stop that from happening, to look out for Atlantic City and horse racing. One shouldn't matter more than the other. But he's obviously not going to do that, and neither are the vast majority of politicians in the southern half of the state who have spent their careers doing whatever Atlantic City tells them to do.

This is politics at its worst and when politics stinks this badly money is involved. One can only imagine how much cash the Atlantic City casino lobby has thrown around to make so many politicians their lap dogs.

There's a lot of garbage coming out of Christie's office. A portion of his press release on the commission's report carries the headline "Creation of a Sustainable Industry Structure to Preserve Live Horse Racing." Don't believe a word of it. This is all about taking care of Atlantic City, and nothing else.

Shame on you, Chris Christie.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at wnfinley@aol.com.