BY TOM HESTER SR.
There will be live standardbred horse racing at the Meadowlands for three months beginning in January as the result of what is described as a secured short-term financing plan to bridge the gap to a potential long-term solution that would make the racetrack a privately run, self-sustaining venture without taxpayer subsidies.
The agreement, announced Friday by Gov. Chris Christie at the Statehouse, also states that if, at the end of March, a lease agreement and self-sustaining operating plan is not in place, all parties agree that the state Sports and Exposition Authority will suspend standardbred racing at the track, with the possible exception of the Hambletonian Meet in August.Christie said his requirement that state-funded operating and purse subsidies for standardbred racing come to an end. To ensure that racing at the Meadowlands can continue uninterrupted on a January schedule, the state Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSEA) will extend operations, secured by simulcast racing revenues, through March 31.
The NJSEA will assign up to four off-track-wagering locations, including Bayonne — but not Woodbridge — all of which would operate contingent on private operation of the Meadowlands track. The OTW locations would pay the NJSEA 10 percent of net earnings. There will be no ongoing subsidies for purses or racing operations.
In the meantime, the Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association of New Jersey (SBOA) will be guaranteed exclusive rights to negotiate a $1 per-year lease for the Meadowlands racetrack for up to five years, with a renewal option.
"It has been my goal all along to keep horse racing alive in New Jersey and at the Meadowlands with a renewed, financially-sound business model that meets the fiscal realities faced today by both the horse racing industry and the state," Christie said. "Given the economic realities, my first interest and priority lies with taxpayers of New Jersey and ensuring the future of the sport is no longer reliant on millions of dollars in subsidies year after year. Today, we have reached a mutually beneficial agreement for the near term, and a framework for a long-term solution to move the industry forward on an independent and self-sustaining financial foundation."
"I am excited to find a way to operate the Meadowlands and several off-track wagering facilities in the private sector," Jeff Gural, a New York racetrack owner-operator and real estate developer, said. "I think the structure that is being proposed will be well received by our customers, as we intend to produce the highest quality horse racing product in the standardbred industry. I've been successful in Upstate New York at Tioga Downs, where we have been able to attract new and younger customers. We will use the same marketing strategies for the Meadowlands and hope for the same results."
"We are thankful real estate entrepreneur and harness racing enthusiast Jeff Gural came to our aid during the final stretch of discussions with the Christie Administration," Tom Luchento, president of the SBOA, said. "The deal with the Governor to save Standardbred racing at Meadowlands will provide our industry a lifeline and give us time to implement innovative changes that will foster self-sufficiency. The time is now for the State of New Jersey and Meadowlands Racetrack to regain their status as the world's premiere standardbred racing venue."
All parties involved have agreed that the state will no longer subsidize harness racing at the Meadowlands. If a long-term lease agreement and operating plan for self-sufficiency is not reached by March 31, all parties agree that an effort will have been made by the standardbred industry and the Christie administration to reach an agreement and avoid closure of the Meadowlands track.
The state's short-term funding for the first quarter of 2011 operations will be guaranteed by the SBOA's pledge of its right to simulcasting revenue at the Meadowlands from April 1 until the state recoups its costs.
Last week, Christie vetoed the Meadowlands schedule, saying more time was necessary to review recommendations that the state get out of funding horse racing.
Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said the agreement to attempt to save the track would not have been made without pressure from the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
"Just a few months ago the governor announced the death of an industry," Sweeney said. "The Legislature refused to accept it. I am pleased that the governor has come around to see things our way in recognizing the importance of the jobs standardbred racing supports, both directly and indirectly. Closing the Meadowlands would have had a horrible ripple effect, from the loss of thousands of jobs at the racetrack to the countless horse farms across the state that would have closed. "There is still more to be done to ensure the long-term viability of the state's horseracing industry. The Legislature has no intention of stopping its work. I have always said that horseracing in New Jersey needs to succeed on its own four legs. This is a good first step to seeing that happen."Monmouth County Republicans Sen. Jennifer Beck Assembly members Declan O'Scanlon and Caroline Casagrande, along with Burlington County Republican Assemblymen Joe Malone and Ron Dancer issued a statement in support of the agreement.
"Today's agreement that provides for racing at the Meadowlands through the first three months of 2011 is a positive development for the horse racing industry," the lawmakers stated. "This will allow horse racing investor, Jeff Gural, who is a successful operator of two other race tracks, with the opportunity to conduct his due diligence and determine whether he will pursue a long-term lease at the Meadowlands.
"We appreciate Governor Christie's willingness to work with the key stakeholders as we seek practical solutions on this critical issue. We are confident that Mr. Gural will recognize the opportunities that racing at the Meadowlands presents that will lead to a long-term commitment."