Horse racing industry has declined since NJ got out of it
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- The horse racing industry will be focused on New Jersey this weekend, as Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh runs in the $1.75 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.
But the big race won't provide much help overall for the problems plaguing the racing industry in the state, where attendance and betting have fallen in recent years. And neither will the $1 million Hambletonian, the first event in the Triple Crown of harness racing for trotters, which will be run at Aug. 8 at the Meadowlands.
So how did a once vibrant, thriving industry become so troubled?
Many believe it started when the state got out of the horse racing business a few years ago.
Track owners, industry groups and racing fans say New York and Pennsylvania do much more to promote racing and keep it in good financial shape. They say that unless more cash is invested in New Jersey, the industry will likely fade away, taking thousands of jobs with it.
"It all comes down to money," said Thomas Luchento, president of the Standardbred Breeders & Owners Association of New Jersey. "If we have more money, we can offer better purses. If we offer better purses, we get more and better horses. Everyone benefits."
The state stopped enhancing purses in 2010 and turned over horse-racing operations to the private sector. The total purses paid dropped from $47.5 million in 2010 to $22.7 million in 2013, and total wagers dropped from $480.7 million in 2010 to $266.4 million in 2013, according to a Rutgers University study.
Many officials and some lawmakers have strongly supported calls to add casinos and other expanded gambling opportunities at the state's racetracks -- Monmouth Park in Oceanport, Freehold Raceway and the Meadowlands in East Rutherford. They say that would help draw in more gamblers and give a financial boost to the tracks.
The money could also be used to develop programs that could help farms, horse breeders, veterinarians, blacksmiths and others in the equine and agriculture industries, which are vital parts of the state's economy.
As an example of the industry's ongoing woes, they cite the news this week that Showplace Farms in Millstone will shut down in October after 36 years in business. The owners of the training and therapy facility for standardbred horses cited the poor economic climate in New Jersey for harness racing and a decrease in the number of horses racing.
But plans to expand gambling elsewhere have drawn opposition from elected officials across southern New Jersey, who want to keep gambling sites in the Atlantic City area. And lawmakers recently ran out of time to put a referendum on the November ballot that would have allowed voters to decide whether to expand casino gambling beyond Atlantic City.
One state lawmaker says the timing of the farm's closure and the failure to get a referendum "should be a wakeup call" for the Legislature.
"It's no secret the equine industry has been struggling as racetracks here have to compete with larger purses in neighboring states that are fueled by casinos," Sen. Steven Oroho said. "To give the breeders, trainers and boarding facilities across New Jersey a fighting chance, we have to even the playing field, and that starts by opening up gaming across the state."
Oroho said he would prefer small boutique gambling rooms at the facilities, noting that many sites already have space where items such as slot or electronic poker machines could be installed.
Meadowlands racetrack owner Jeff Gural, who has fought a lengthy battle to get a casino there, remains hopeful but concerned about the racing industry's future. He notes that the dated track was rebuilt a few years ago to create a "modern, correctly sized" facility that would hopefully attract a younger crowd and renew interest in racing.
Gural said the track has experimented with different promotions, such as food truck events and camel and ostrich races. But he says a casino would draw in new fans and keep current ones from heading to out-of-state racinos, a view also shared by many racing fans.
"It's just common sense to me," 67-year-old Joe Tucker said as he prepared to make a few bets at an off-track betting facility in Toms River on Wednesday. "I enjoy playing slots and some poker in Atlantic City, but I like playing the ponies too. Why can't I have both?"
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