Cautious optimism has spread through New Jersey’s horseracing industry in recent months, but the prospect of the sport’s first Triple Crown winner in more than 30 years is giving track operators a reason to step up their excitement.
“The industry as a whole really needs this,” said Michael Newlin, general manager of the Meadowlands Racetrack. “Since 1978, the business has gone in the other direction, so we need a superstar. We need a Michael Jordan out there.”
Newlin spoke two days after I’ll Have Another won the Preakness Stakes, following up his Kentucky Derby win and taking the second leg of horseracing’s Triple Crown. About 9,000 people visited the East Rutherford track on Saturday, he said, and the June 9 running of the third leg, the Belmont Stakes, “should be a very big day for us.”
The industry has been down this road as recently as 2008, when Big Brown won the first two races but finished last at Belmont Park, in New York. But this year’s run comes at a pivotal time for New Jersey’s racing industry. The state privatized Meadowlands Racetrack in December and Monmouth Park last month, as part of an effort to remove the state from the struggling business.
The new operators are now hoping to start strong in their first year. Total on-track betting at the Meadowlands on Saturday fell about $100,000 short of last year’s Preakness day, at $2.4 million, but Newlin said the harness racing track is still seeing substantial growth.
Through the first 47 live racing days at the Meadowlands, attendance and on-track handle are up 9 percent and 16 percent from last year, respectively, he said. For Kentucky Derby day on May 5, the track’s crowd of 15,000 was the highest since 2007.
At Monmouth Park, in Oceanport, nearly 10,000 patrons attended for Saturday’s Preakness, which was the track’s second weekend of live racing, spokesman John Heims said. On-track wagering for the track’s thoroughbred racing card totaled $1.4 million, which is “about on par with last year.”
Heims said the buzz over the Triple Crown is also helpful to the historic track, which is now being managed by the state Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. He added that Monmouth Park is working hard to attract the industry’s top 3-year-olds, including I’ll Have Another, to its premiere race, the Haskell Invitational.
“We’re going to do our best to get them all there,” including Bodemeister, the runner-up at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Operators at Freehold Raceway also were expecting “a good business day” for the Belmont Stakes, said Chris McErlean, vice president for racing at Penn National Gaming, one of the track’s parent companies. In an e-mail, he said interest was strong for the Kentucky Derby and even for the Preakness, but “prior experience has shown a nice bump in handle when the (Triple Crown) is on the line.”
Newlin, the Meadowlands general manager, also noted that the venue has “a long list of promotions going on this spring and summer that should attract a lot of new people.” Among them is a June 15 card that includes camel and ostrich racing, which he said was a non-betting gimmick, but “just a way to get some new fans out here to see something different.”
“The industry as a whole has not done a good job of attracting new fans to the track,” he said. “And there’s still that stigma that it’s your grandpa’s racetrack, with cigar-toting old men wearing plaid pants. And that’s just not the case.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong attendance figure at the Meadowlands for the day of the Kentucky Derby.