2008-02-20 / Front Page
N.J.'s racing industry on the brink of collapse
Sens. Beck, Sarlo seek meeting with N.J. Casino Assoc.
Local members of the harness racing industry had strong reactions to the announcement that Freehold Raceway has reduced its purse structure and that the Meadowlands is expected to follow suit with drastic purse cuts if the Legislature does not quickly fulfill promises to provide a purse supplement.
"With the current purse schedule, we would be in an overpayment situation in another week," the Freehold Raceway statement said. "This will be the new purse schedule until a new agreement is reached. Unfortunately, we will not be able to write an invitational pace, open mares or open trot until a new agreement is reached."
The Casino Association of New Jersey just finished a four-year subsidy program for the horse racing industry in which casinos provided $86 million to racetracks in return for the state not establishing video lottery terminals or slot machines at racetracks.
Without a new purse supplement, East Rutherford's Meadowlands' purses would drop from the current average of $220,000 per program to $90,000 each night.
State Sens. Jennifer Beck and Paul A. Sarlo last week announced they are seeking a framework for establishing a stable source of funding for the financially threatened horse-racing industry in New Jersey, which faces slashed purses and stiff competition from neighboring states.
The two legislators are seeking a meeting with the Casino Association of New Jersey.
Beck (R-Monmouth and Mercer) and Sarlo (D-Bergen, Essex and Passaic) said new initiatives are needed to save the horse-racing industry.
"With the outburst of competition in neighboring states, New Jersey needs to develop a united front to preserve all elements of our gaming industry," Beck and Sarlo wrote in a letter to Joseph A. Corbo Jr., president of the Casino Association of New Jersey and vice president and general counsel at the Borgata in Atlantic City.
Seeking a meeting with the association within the next two weeks, Sarlo and Beck said they would broach the potential of the Atlantic City gaming industry for dropping its longstanding opposition of video lottery terminals in New Jersey.
In the letter, the legislators said, "You know full well how much the universe of gaming has changed during the four years your association subsidized the horse racing industry in New Jersey."
"New Jersey is now surrounded by stiff competition from nearby states like New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut for what, ultimately, is a finite level of gaming revenues.
"The proliferation of slot machine parlors and casinos with video lottery terminals, especially those in the Philadelphia area owned by casino interests, presents a grave threat toAtlantic City gaming and horse tracks throughout New Jersey.
"New Jersey's $1.1 billion-a-year horse industry, of racetracks, breeding farms, more than 100,000 acres of open space and 14,000 related jobs, is in more serious peril than ever before.
"New Jersey needs to develop a united front to preserve all elements of our gaming industry," the letter continued.
They said the loss of the subsidies would result in slashed purses at standardbred tracks and downgrade the quality of horses racing at tracks including Monmouth Park.
"The New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority says it cannot continue to make up for the levels of lost subsidies at the tracks it runs," they wrote.
Jacqueline Ingrassia, Upper Freehold, is the leading female driver in the sport, and also serves as a director of the United States Trotting Association and the Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association of New Jersey (SBOANJ). In her view, the announcement is nothing short of disastrous.
"We at the SBOANJ have been lobbying long and hard for the slots at our racetracks here in New Jersey simply to keep up with neighboring states," Ingrassia said. "In the interim, we requested a subsidy from the casinos, as they have compounded our problems by setting up shop in Pennsylvania just across the river."
Ingrassia said New Jersey must wake up before it is too late to save its equine industry. She said the state's open space would suffer, which would result in overdevelopment and overcrowding and increased pollution. She also said that thousands would go unemployed if the industry tanked.
"Maybe our governor just doesn't understand the repercussions," she said. "How very shortsighted of him."
Millstone resident Kelvin Harrison, who has 35 horses at the Magical Acres training center in Chesterfield and is vice president of the SBOANJ, said horsemen cannot survive in New Jersey with the reduced purse structure and no subsidy.
"Most people will have to relocate," he said. "New Jersey is the high-rent district."
He said costs for horsemen in New Jersey far outweigh those in any other state.
Mark Mullen, the manager of his family's Fair Winds Farm in Upper Freehold, said the governor's office has been promising to render a decision on the subsidy matter since last summer.
"Clearly, the agricultural sector here in New Jersey doesn't rank too highly on the administration's agenda," Mullen said.H
e continued, "All facets of the equine community have been working very hard over these last months to devise longterm plans for breeding, racing and sport horses that will stabilize equine agriculture for the long haul. Most in New Jersey recognize the value of a vibrant agriculture sector."
According to Mullen, the governor's delays in taking action have created real uncertainty in the business at a critical time of year. He further noted that opportunities lost at this time of year may not be made up later.
"The economic impact will be damaging to an already struggling business," he said.ullen said the governor currently has many large issues on his plate but needs to act on this one now.
"Time and again he has expressed his support for equine agriculture," he said. "Today, right now, he needs to set his cards on the table."
Maggi Romano, Millstone, said the purse cuts have already put some of the smaller owners and trainers out of business.
"We need the promised supplement from the casinos right away," she said, adding that the supplement would only amount to a quick fix and that what is needed are slots at the state's racetracks.
"We need the video lottery terminals (VLTs) at New Jersey's racetracks to make the purses and breeding program comparable to those of the neighboring states," Romano said. "The governor has to make good on his promises to help New Jersey's racing industry."
Romano retired from training because she could not make a living with a small stable, and now works as a groom who takes care of horses racing at Freehold Raceway and the Meadowlands.
Diane McMahon, Millstone, a racehorse groom and former trainer, said the announcement of purse cuts will not only impact the standardbred industry but all hor se- related businesses in the state.
"We need the personalities of all equine businesses to start opening up their mouths and pockets to lobby in Trenton," McMahon said. "After all, we have the best stables trainers and grooms, horses, and breeding and training farms in the business here."
Pete Blaso, Upper Freehold, said he and his wife uprooted their family and moved from North Jersey nine years ago to buy a farm and start a small breeding operation.
"We decided to take a chance since it appeared, at that time, that racing in New Jersey was a solid prospect," Blaso said. "Without the supplemental funding, and with the surrounding states already in action with racinos, we couldn't have been more wrong."
Blaso said their desire to breed to New Jersey stallions has been eliminated. He also said that the value of horse farms could diminish since the desire to race in New Jersey "is dropping by the second."
Blaso said the biggest problem is the power that Atlantic City has over the state.
"Atlantic City was so worried that if racinos were put in, they would lose business," he said. "In reality, Atlantic City is already taking a big fall by the surrounding states implementing the racinos. Atlantic City is like a ghost town. They cut off their noses to spite their face."
Blaso said the governor promised to help the racing community and has done nothing to date.
"The state, with one of the best racing facilities in the country, has allowed the racing industry to be knocked down on their knees begging," he said. "It is a disgrace that no one heard the screaming for help long before the 11th hour."
Dr. David Meirs II, owner of Walnridge Farm in Upper Freehold and vice president of the New Jersey Sire Stakes program, said that the Sire Stakes is the reason for standardbred breeding farms in the area.
"The Sire Stakes is completely dependent on the handle, the handle is dependent on the quality of racing, and the quality of racing is dependent on the purses," he said.
Meirs said he hopes the governor and the Legislature will get their act together and do something about the current state of racing in New Jersey.
Tom Luchento, president of the Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association of New Jersey, said, "We are at a crossroads for the future of racing and breeding in this state. We need the legislators and the governor to step up and finalize this agreement."