Meadowlands has a potential angel

Few in Thoroughbred racing know the man who is trying to save New Jersey’s Meadowlands by spending $100 million to privatize the track and take it off the hands of Gov. Chris Christie, who otherwise wants to close it.

It’s time for an introduction.

His name is Jeff Gural, and everyone in Manhattan real estate knows him. His company – Newmark Knight Frank – bought the famed Flatiron building, a New York City landmark, 14 years ago, and it also owns some 40 other properties, and manages 150, encompassing 50 million square feet of office space, and employing 7,000 people worldwide. Gural is chairman of the company, but he also is far more.

He is a philanthropist, serving as president, for the last 20 years or so, of the Starlight Foundation, which helps sick children, and playing a role in 20 others, including the I Have A Dream Foundation, where he sponsor two separate groups of underprivileged kids from elementary school through college. He pursues educational interests as a member of the governor’s board at the famed New School.

He is a hands-on owner and breeder, and horsemen have learned to respect him.

He is skilled mover and shaker in politics, lunching with Nancy Pelosi and having a rare and prized picture of himself sitting in Bill Clinton’s chair in the oval office. He also has one of himself and Barack Obama, and another with New York’s new governor, Andrew Cuomo. Did I mention he was a Democrat?

Despite those connections, Chris Christie apparently did not know who he was when he called and asked for a chance to talk with him about leasing the Meadowlands. As David Briggs, the bright young editor of Canadian Sportsman tells the story in a long and detailed article titled “The Accidental Savior” in his magazine, Gural was told that “he could indeed talk about a possible deal, so long as he could get to Trenton [the state capital] immediately with a check for $3 million to cover potential losses at the track until March 31. Otherwise, he was told, the closure of the track would be announced that night. A short time later, an embarrassed staffer who obviously checked into Gural’s background called back to apologize and tell Gural that Gov. Christie would be delighted to meet with him the next morning.”

Gural is 68, but neither looks nor acts it. He enjoys young people, and five years ago he hired, as his track general manager and all-around strong right racing arm, a bright and aggressive young harness racing publicist named Jason Settlemoir, who was in his twenties at the time. Settlemoir asked Gural for a contract, and Gural refused, promising Jason that “if you come to work for me and things work out, you’ll never have to worry about anything.” So far he’s made good on the promise, and he and Settlemoir have made Tioga Downs in upstate New York the talk of harness racing and its horsemen.

Whether he makes good on his Meadowlands deal is highly problematic. He has until the 31st of this month to pull it off, and has no illusions about succeeding, calling the project “a real challenge, the first time I’ve ever tackled something where I didn’t know what the end result was going to be.”

Two years ago he proposed forcing potential sires to race until they were 5, or not have their get eligible for the sport’s major races. The idea was to prevent racing’s stars from entering the breeding shed after their 3-year-old seasons. “I had the Meadowlands on board,” he says, “but Woodbine‘s board wouldn’t do it.” So instead Gural sponsored stakes for older horses at his track and elsewhere.

I asked him to speak at the last joint annual meeting of Harness Tracks of America and the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, and Woodbine president Nick Eaves introduced him “as somebody who likes to tell it as it is.”

Gural didn’t disappoint, starting with “It’s all been said, and truthfully the people that you really would want to be speaking aren’t here. They are the leaders of the horsemen’s associations and the breeders who have put their own interests first above that of the sport of racing . . . . We have no leadership in racing because no one is obligated to follow the leaders of anybody.”

He said harness racing would disappear in 10 years if things didn’t change, and said the runners would do the same 10 years later. “The tracks that don’t have slots are not here because they can’t afford to send anybody, and the tracks that do have slots are not here because they don’t really care about racing. I really got into this not to make money, and I’ve succeeded in not making money, but I felt it was a challenge to find out if you could get people to come to a racetrack. Because over the 40 years I’ve been going to racetracks, pretty much every one I went to I thought was very poorly run. The same complaints that you hear . . . the food is terrible, it’s overpriced, the bathrooms aren’t clean, all of that stuff. So I thought, gee, I can’t believe that you can’t get people to come to a racetrack if you changed all of the things that people think wrong.”

He did at Tioga, which he built from scratch. If he gets the Meadowlands he plans to build a new, smaller grandstand on what is now the backstretch, and do away with the stable area.

Now you know the man. He is impressive, and one of the most interesting and unique figures in American racing, regardless of breed.

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