By Brenda Flanagan
They’re off — and we don’t just mean the horses. Overall, New Jersey’s horse racing industry’s fallen far behind its competitors in neighboring states, particularly since Jersey tracks were privatized five years ago and lost $30 million a year in casino subsidies.
“The cuts have been hard,” said Dennis Drazin.
Drazin manages Monmouth Park where wagering lagged more than 48 percent this Memorial Day weekend compared to last year.
“We’ve had to do many things such as renegotiating contracts, offer less days of racing than traditionally were offered in New Jersey and it’s tough to make ends meet,” he said.
“Many of those involved in breeding, stabling and raising of horses have left New Jersey, relocating to Kentucky, Florida, Georgia and other states that are perceived to be more supportive of the sport,” said Far Hills Mayor Paul Vallone.
To promote New Jersey’s racing industry — and preserve farms and stables — tracks here support a proposed bill, to open the Far Hills Steeplechase held at Moorland Farm, to pari-mutuel betting. The October event draws 40,000 people every year. Bets would flow to charity, but racing would benefit, according to testimony before the Assembly Tourism Gaming and the Arts Committee.
“Through revenues of simulcasting this race to an international — as well as national — audience, not only will there be greater opportunity and resources for marketing our state and steeplechase racing,” said Assemblyman Ron Dancer.
But organizers also hope to attract the Grand National here — steeplechase’s biggest race. Meanwhile, Jersey’s struggling tracks must offer smaller purses and without casinos, the state can’t compete against New York and Pennsylvania, according to Meadowlands owner Jeff Gural.
“In New York they get about $180 million a year in subsidies. Pennsylvania gets about $280 [million]. If you go to Pennsylvania, many of the racetracks are also casinos and they use a portion of the revenue from the casinos to subsidize the racing. Only New Jersey is really the only state in the area that doesn’t do that,” Gural said.
That’s why New Jersey’s three remaining tracks hope voters here approve building two new casinos in North Jersey, which would share at least 2 percent of their tax revenues with racetracks. Though some complain 2 percent isn’t enough.
“I appreciate everything the Legislature and governor does to assist us, but it doesn’t make us competitive with other states,” Drazin said.
“The 2 percent may not be what people want, but it’s a big step forward, a big step forward. And hopefully the referendum’s going to pass in spite of people predicting that it won’t,” said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo.
If horse racing fails in New Jersey, it means a $4 billion industry, thousands of acres of horse farms and 14,000 jobs.
“Blacksmith, it’s the the horse dentist, it’s the veterinarian, I mean there are nine people attached to every single horse. So every one of their lives are impacted when racing gets smaller,” said Freehold Raceway Lobbyist Barbara DeMarco.
Drazin says Monmouth Park will never close, but as the industry races for survival, it may not look the same at the finish line.