These might seem like tough times for Monmouth Park. The glow of last year's "Elite Meet," which was a smashing success, is long gone. Purses, handle and field size are down and an influx of money that went to the track each year in the form of a supplement from Atlantic City has disappeared and is never coming back.
Horsemen are disgruntled, the fans clearly miss the terrific product that was presented last year and management has been left in the unenviable position of trying to run a meet that was put into chaos by the uncertainty that surrounded all of New Jersey racing over the winter.
My advice: hang in there.
When the whole soap opera that has been New Jersey racing of late plays itself out there's a good chance that the sport in the Garden State will be better and stronger than ever.
The problems began when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie came out and said the state, which owned Monmouth and the Meadowlands, was getting out of the horse racing business because the tracks were losing money. If that were all there were to this story then Christie's position was understandable. Times are tough, just about every state in the country is broke and it was difficult to justify New Jersey government supporting a money-loser in horse racing.
But, as is always the case when politics and politicians are involved, the real story was a lot more complicated and not nearly as neat and clean as it seemed on the surface. Christie could have easily solved racing's problems while, at the same time, both aiding the reeling Atlantic City casino industry and solving much of the state's monetary problems. Putting a casino in at the Meadowlands, one in which the racetracks, the state and the Atlantic City casinos partnered, was a win-win-win situation.
Christie chose not to do so and instead waged war on the horse industry, acting like a man who couldn't shut it down fast enough, while cozying up to Atlantic City casino interests. At the same time he vowed to shut down racing in the state because it lost a few million dollars, he pledged to have the state take over the casino district in Atlantic City, something that figured to cost many millions of dollars.
Since he's not stupid, the only plausible explanation for his actions was that he wanted racing out of the way so that a casino could open at the Meadowlands and no one would have to share a dime with the racing industry. His fat cat friends in Atlantic City would have the money and what figured to be one of the most successful casinos in the world all to themselves.
What Christie never counted on was that someone would come along and actually want to take the Meadowlands off his hands. That's what Jeff Gural did, and he bought the New Jersey racing industry something it desperately needed -- time.
Governor Christie and the Atlantic City boys were outsmarted. Now, Christie is stuck with an outrageously horrible plan to spend millions trying to bail out Atlantic City.
Because Christie, for political reasons, had to say that he wasn't opposed to racing, he was just opposed to the state owning tracks that were losing money, he had no choice but to let Gural take over the Meadowlands. Even though New Jerseyans have come to expect so little from their politicians, Christie never could have gotten away with killing the Meadowlands when someone was willing to take it off his hands.
In the meantime, a real estate guy named Morris Bailey stepped in and took Monmouth over from the state. That wasn't necessarily a surprise since Monmouth, even in its current state, is one of the top tracks in the country and it was clear that someone would want to own what is a jewel.
Christie and the Atlantic City boys were outsmarted. Now, Christie is stuck with an outrageously horrible plan to spend millions trying to bail out Atlantic City. Everyone knows it has no chance of working. Atlantic City once had the gambling market in the northern half of the country all to itself. Now it is surrounded by casinos in neighboring states and has seen its customers flee to Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware and elsewhere. Atlantic City is a lost cause.
Eventually, Christie or his successor will have to admit that. The voters will not tolerate their leaders blowing hundreds of millions on Atlantic City when every public school in the state has had to layoff teachers, a favorite target of this governor.
When the Governor of New Jersey pulls the plug on the Atlantic City bailout fiasco, casino gaming in the state will come to the Meadowlands. And when it comes to the Meadowlands Bailey, who happens to own an Atlantic City casino, and thoroughbred racing at Monmouth will be cut in on the action. Purses will soar back to or above 2010 levels.
Industry insiders believe a casino will be approved at the Meadowlands in about two years.
If that happens, New Jersey racing will be in a great situation. To have a smart businessman like Bailey running the place makes Monmouth immeasurably better off than when it was run by the state. A privately run business is always a better way to go than a state-run operation. Plus, Bailey is a horse guy. He owns horses and seems to understand the game and care about it. He knows what works at Monmouth (a short boutique-style meet) and what doesn't (a long, drawn out meet with cheap racing).
With Bailey and with Gural it's likely that racing will always be the No. 1 priority, which is anything but the case at those so-called racinos.
This will take some time, but New Jersey racing has a future, hopefully a bright one.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.