The Meadowlands Racetrack became the North American mecca for harness racing almost since the day the track opened in September 1976.
But 12 months later, a 100-night thoroughbred meet at the East Rutherford, New Jersey, site gained attention of its own. Crowds averaged more than 17,000 for up to five or six nights a week, and crowds of 25,000 were not uncommon for the featured Saturday night card.
But as lottery jackpots began growing exponentially and as Atlantic City’s casino industry grew each year, the crowds began to dwindle for all horse racing at “The Big M.” The 2008 thoroughbred meet featured only 40 dates, and crowds barely averaged 3,500.
And for the next three years, thoroughbred racing at the Meadowlands disappeared entirely. Lifelong horseman Dennis Drazin — whose Darby Development company runs Monmouth Park for Jersey’s thoroughbred racing industry — told US Bets on Monday that a combination of environmental concerns and stabling issues at the Meadowlands led to the hiatus.
But the thoroughbreds — now stabling in Oceanport and shipping up north for Meadowlands races — returned to East Rutherford in 2012 with a modest eight-date card. That has been the norm for the past decade, and this fall features nine race dates on Friday and Saturday evenings from Sept. 23 through Oct. 22 (except for Oct. 15, when the 101st running of the steeplechase event called the Far Hills Race Meeting takes place).
Another rainout on Saturday
The thoroughbreds race on the turf at the Meadowlands, not on the dirt track that is home to the standardbred races. That means that inclement weather is particularly hazardous, and Saturday’s rainout of the scheduled fourth card represented a common result for this meet each year.
Drazin said that while concerns about the safety of the horses and their jockeys must be considered, running a card in wet conditions also could cause enough damage to lead other cards to be canceled.
So what’s the solution?
“Our goal always is to have an extended thoroughbred meet at the Meadowlands,” Drazin said. But he and Meadowlands operator Jeff Gural haven’t been able to work out an affordable arrangement to do so, Drazin added.
A synthetic turf track, which many in the industry consider to be safer than natural-surface tracks, would be a boon — but at a one-time price of around $10 million. Drazin said the state’s thoroughbred horsemen “have sought assistance” from state officials about ponying up most or all of that cost, since it would be too costly for the horsemen alone.
Gulfstream Park in Florida and Woodbine Racetrack in Ontario are among the popular tracks that feature synthetic turf.
Synthetic turf would open up all sorts of possibilities
Drazin said that, as an experiment, both forms of racing occurred at the Meadowlands on Kentucky Derby Day in 2012. He said more “mixing” could occur down the road with a synthetic track — whether on alternating days, or even having the breeds alternate races on the same card.
The standardbreds are on a break until the weekend of Nov. 4-5.
And while the days of a 100-race thoroughbred meet at the Meadowlands may be over, Drazin said that the installation of synthetic turf there could mean “maybe 40 dates” at the track.
While a new track surface is merely in the discussion stages, regulars at the Meadowlands may already have noticed a new wrinkle this fall.
The launch of fixed odds at Monmouth Park this spring has migrated north to the Meadowlands. Unlike traditional parimutuel odds — where a horse bet on at 10/1 well before the race, for example, might have its odds drop as low as 2/1 as the race begins — with fixed odds, the price you bet is the price you get.
Drazin said fixed odds betting has proven popular with enough Monmouth Park players that he wanted them to be able to continue to have that option at the Meadowlands. He added that sports bettors at the FanDuel Casino & Sportsbook facility inside the Meadowlands grandstand may find fixed odds more appealing.
So far, fixed odds is confined to thoroughbred races, as the standardbred industry leaders have expressed a preference to see first whether fixed odds turn out to cannibalize the parimutuel handle at Monmouth Park.