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Sunday 15 July 2012

Racetrack operator opens OTB site but wants slots,

To new Meadowlands Racetrack operator Jeff Gural, the urgency for the state's harness racing industry to find new sources of revenue was readily apparent Tuesday at a news conference held at an off-track wagering facility in Bayonne that he will open next week.

The media event was to announce the draw for Saturday night's Meadowlands Pace — known for three decades as the "Million Dollar Meadowlands Pace." But now, with the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority no longer subsidizing the purses, the harness racing horsemen will be racing for only $600,000. That's the lowest figure since 1979, the third year of the event.

"In the past the state was just filling the gap between $600,000 and the $1 million but, as it is, between eliminations and consolations [and the main event], we're still putting $500,000 into the race," Gural said of his partnership's contributions. "To put in [a total of] $900,000 just wouldn't make sense."

Gural, who took over operation of the East Rutherford track this year, also said that without purse subsidies from slot-machine revenues at tracks — as many states offer — "we're going to struggle purse-wise. You can't print money. It is what it is. We're still attracting top horses, and it's still a prestigious event to win."

But in an attempt to find that other revenue and build the sport back toward its better days, Gural has invested $18 million to build the 25,000-square-foot Bayonne betting facility on Route 440 north (not far from the Bayonne Bridge and Staten Island).

More than 150 television screens, a 38-seat bar and a full-service restaurant operated by Tim McLoone all evoke comparisons to the Favorites at Woodbridge site in Middlesex County that is now operated by the state's thoroughbred horsemen.

That site, off Routes 1 & 9 and near the junction of the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike, generates about $5 million in net operating income. Gural hopes that the Bayonne site — as well as future joint ventures with the thoroughbred horsemen for four or five other off-track wagering locations — will produce enough revenue to offset annual on-site losses at the Meadowlands that reached $10 million in recent years.

Gural said he has reduced various costs since taking over operations, including cutting the pay of tellers and other track employees by 20 percent.

The track's revenues were up in the beginning of the year thanks in large part to a mild winter, but Gural said that so many top drivers have been racing in other states in recent weeks that the quality of the racing — and therefore the amount of betting interest — has suffered.

Gural has repeatedly urged the entire harness-racing community to make every effort to support the Meadowlands track — traditionally North America's leading track — in spite of the lure of more lucrative purses in neighboring states.

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