By Steve Strunsky/The Star-Ledger
Gov. Chris Christie announced a plan today to keep horse racing alive at New Jersey’s two tracks, without taxpayer subsidies.
The plan includes a 30-year lease of the Meadowlands Racetrack to a private operator, and a separate agreement for continued state-run racing at Monmouth Park in 2012 that would eventually privatize operations there.
"This has been an arduous process, but one that I believe was necessary to ensure uninterrupted racing at Monmouth Park and the Meadowlands," Christie said in a statement. "At the same time, we are protecting the public interest and preserving jobs at both venues and in New Jersey’s equine industry."
The Monmouth deal had come down to the wire, with the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority and the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association hammering out a deal Monday night an hour and half before a midnight deadline Christie had set.
The 65-year-old track in Oceanport faced a shutdown if no deal was reached. The sports authority and the horsemen’s association finalized the deal today.
"It’s certainly a relief to see that an agreement’s been reached," said Mayor Michael Mahon of Oceanport, which receives $1.8 million a year in property taxes from the track.
Monmouth Park is also Oceanport’s largest employer, providing jobs for about 1,600 stable hands, cashiers, food vendors and other workers during the five-month racing season.
Monmouth, the Meadowlands and related businesses provide 7,000 jobs and $780 million in economic activity for the state each year, according to a 2007 study by the Rutgers Equine Science Center.
But New Jersey’s tracks have suffered due to the decline of horse racing’s popularity generally and because of competition from tracks in New York and Pennsylvania that also offer slot machines, a lucrative commingling of track betting and one-arm banditry successfully opposed by New Jersey’s casino lobby. What was once a $30 million annual subsidy of the horse racing industry, financed by casinos, has expired.
Under the Monmouth deal, the sports authority would continue to operate the track during the 2012 season, as it has since purchasing it from a private owner in 1985. The horsemen agreed to an average daily purse of $150,000 and $175,000 paid by the sports authority over the 141-day race season.
In return, the authority pledged to demand purses of $500,000 per day, though over half as many race days, when seeking bids on a lease from private operators early next year.
A preliminary deal to lease Monmouth for five years was reached with developer Morris Bailey in June, but the arrangement collapsed earlier this month, prompting Christie to set the Monday night deadline.
The Monmouth deal essentially cleared the way for finalization of the Meadowlands agreement, after Christie had demanded privatization of both tracks. The sports authority had already entered into a preliminary deal with New York real estate developer Jeffrey Gural to run the Meadowlands track.
Along with the Monmouth deal, the governor also announced the sports authority and Gural had finalized a 30-year lease on Meadowlands Racetrack, which Gural will operate.
State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) helped broker the Monmouth deal. In a statement today, Kyrillos warned, "There is a great deal of work to do in the new year to build a stronger racing industry that can stand on its own without taxpayer assistance."
Steve Strunsky: email@example.com