Wake-up call for horse racing
The horse racing world is buzzing with rumours of possible changes in the make-up of New Jersey gaming and professional sports.
Those unfamiliar with racing might wonder why the decisions made in this small Eastern seaboard state would cause so much concern. New Jersey is the home to the Meadowlands Racetrack, which has long been considered one of North America's show places of harness racing. It's once lofted position in the sport's hierarchy saw it offer the highest purses on the continent.
As I recently explained in my column about the Meadowlands Pace, one of the richest stakes races for three year old pacers, the Meadowlands track is part of the New Jersey Sports Complex and is operated by a state commission known as the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. The novel approach to the government running a racetrack was considered a model for the industry.
Unfortunately, times are changing and the present day realities of racing in New Jersey are not nearly so attractive. It has been reported that the authority is losing more than $30 million a year and the racetrack has become an unprofitable component of a much larger series of problems facing the state. The once highly profitable gaming businesses of Atlantic City filled New Jersey tax coffers but now faces a worn out and slightly tarnished image that has seen declining revenues and loss of tourism and convention business. Some argue that the lack of slot terminals at the Meadowlands is caused by the political pressure applied by the casinos on the Boardwalk, and makes the racetrack less attractive than nearby competitors in other states.
New Jersey has been deeply affected by the recent down turn in the economy. This week's announcement of recommendations put forth by the New Jersey Gaming, Sports and Entertainment Advisory Commission has taken into account these problems and after studying the entire picture, has come up with some sweeping and controversial suggestions.
Many of the proposed changes address the need for a revitalization of the jaded Atlantic City image and identify the need for rebuilding the tourist industry and related infrastructure. Most disturbing from a horse racing perspective is the recommendation that New Jersey get out of the sports and entertainment business and privatize the Meadowlands Racetrack, offering it to the horsemen for a nominal $1 per year on a three year basis.
It would seem that in the pecking order of priorities, the venerable old track is down the list and could be hung out to dry without a safety net.
The possible demise of the once greatest harness racetrack in North America is a wake-up call to an industry that has been sleeping heavily for too long. Slowly, the players are beginning to realize that declining wagering revenues are an indicator that the sport is losing its market share and is unsustainable without heavy government subsidy through sharing of other forms of gaming and casino revenue.
How long the subsidies will last is a question every horse person should be asking themselves as governments struggle during these tough economic times.
Scott Rowe is former chairman of the board at Georgian Downs.