Meadowlands crisis just one reason to fret

It has been a wild and woolly fortnight in racing.

In New York the Racing and Wagering Board, emboldened by the public’s revulsion at the Ernie Paragallo animal cruelty scandal and an appellate court decision denying Paragallo’s appeal, barred the trainer for life from racing in the state.

In New Orleans the Association of Racing Commissioners International’s incoming chairman, Willie Koester of Ohio, said, without citing sources, “Today over 99 percent of Thoroughbred racehorses and 70 percent of Standardbred racehorses have a needle stuck in them four hours before a race, as horsemen become more desperate to win races.” The outgoing chairman, Dan Hartman of Colorado, called for a five-year phase-out of all drugs on race day. The ARCI’s president, Ed Martin, said his members were “largely receptive” to the idea. As admirable as the proposal is, some skeptics doubted the RCI can get it done. One of them – newsletter editor Ray Paulick –wrote that he “didn’t think most state regulators have the intestinal fortitude to make the change.”

In Chicago and Los Angeles, shortages of horses forced action. Hawthorne, struggling to fill races, announced it would pay not only the first five finishers, but allocate 1 percent of the base purse to all in the race finishing from sixth on. Santa Anita, faced with a diminished horse supply, reverted to a four-day Thursday-through-Sunday racing week “in everyone’s interest.”

Pimlico, home of the Preakness, heartened by last year’s reported crowd of 33,000 young beer-swilling revelers in its infield responding to a $20 all-you-can-drink campaign, announced a new idea, called Kegasus, for this year’s orgy. The promotion features what the Associated Press called “a half-man, half-horse Preakness Stakes mascot that sports a nipple ring and a beer gut.” Maryland’s largest newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, called the campaign even more tasteless than last year, which produced “drunk people racing across the top of Porta-potties.” It described Kegasus as “having the torso of a sleazy, unshaven, beer-gutted man.” To add to this year’s frivolity, a bikini contest will be featured. Anyone want to bet on entrants being stripped? Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas, explaining what the Sun called “a giant open air frat party,” justified it bluntly: “We need people in the infield to help our bottom line.” No one ever said a racing classic had to have class.

And then there was last week’s New Jersey gaming forum, held in Newark with an all-star cast.

It was held on the same day that the state’s biggest newspaper, the Newark Star Ledger, reported that New York real estate developer and Thoroughbred owner Morris Bailey was the likely winner of the eight-horse race to lease Monmouth Park, apparently beating out Hialeah’s John Brunetti and the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association in the stretch.

It also was the day that another New York real estate magnate, Jeff Gural, was trying to put together the final piece of his quest for the Meadowlands. He said he had done what he thought would be “the hard part” – raising $100 million to rebuild the track on a smaller platform – only to discover that was not as difficult as dealing with the track’s unions. Gov. Chris Christie extended his deadline from March 31 to April 15 to help Gural get that done.

The governor didn’t appear at the forum, but two of his chief gambling advisers did. Jon Hanson was there to tell the crowd that there would be no slot machines at the Meadowlands “in the foreseeable future,” which translated most likely means as long as Christie is governor.

And Bob Mulcahy, who ran the Meadowlands in earlier days of glory, and later Rutgers university athletics, spoke ironically of political interference, most specifically by former governor James E. McGreevey’s administration a decade ago. Mulcahy said McGreevey “sent his people up there [to the Meadowlands and Sports Authority] to tear it apart.”

The irony, of course, is that Mulcahy’s close colleague, Hanson, now might finish the job. Justifying his and Christie’s determination not to allow slots at the track, Hanson told the forum, “That might take away from Atlantic City’s comeback bid. We looked at the question . . . our conclusion was “Let’s see if there is a way you can revitalize gaming in Atlantic City.” It was necessary, he said, because casino jobs there had fallen from 50,000 to 33,000 over the last five years.

The Hanson-Christie solution is that if Jeff Gural can’t convince the labor unions to go along with his takeover plans, then shut down an entire industry supporting tens of thousands in New Jersey, as many acres of green space, and destroy what Bob Mulcahy proudly and correctly called “a harness industry that was the best in the world.” Hanson called it “a necessary trade-off.”

The thousands who may lose their livelihood might call it an avoidable economic disaster, and they would be right.

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