Fans at the Meadowlands Baffled by a State Plan
By PETER APPLEBOME
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.
Yes, it was his 52nd birthday, and he had just won $102.50 on Elusive Desire in the third race on Friday, so it figured that Bill Robol would be in a good mood. But aside from all that, he wondered, on a clear night, the Manhattan skyline twinkling in the distance beyond the merry monstrosity that is the stalled Xanadu project, what could be better than a summer night at the Meadowlands Racetrack?
“I’m going to go home soon, kick my feet up and say, ‘God bless it. I love the Meadowlands,’ ” said Mr. Robol, a carpenter from Wood-Ridge, who comes to the races every other week or so. “They should be worried about keeping this place afloat and not Xanadu, which is a money loser for New Jersey, or corrupt politics favoring Atlantic City. You got to give this place a break. Look at it. It’s beautiful.”
Alas, at a time full of elusive desires, not enough people agree. This should be the best time of the year at the one-mile racetrack, once the cash cow of the Meadowlands back when horse racing accounted for more than 90 percent of New Jersey’s gambling revenues. The weekend’s elimination races lead up to Saturday’s $1.5 million Hambletonian Stakes, the most prestigious in harness racing, which has been held at the Meadowlands since 1981.
Instead, much of the attention here is on whether the track — or harness racing — has a future in New Jersey, after a long-awaited report recommended that the state stop operating the track and rejected the idea of having slot machines here. It recommended instead that the state take over the casino district in Atlantic City and devote resources to Xanadu.
Horsemen and bettors since then have tried to plead their case: that the Meadowlands Racetrack would have unlimited potential if it had slot machines like its competitors in New York, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and that horse racing underpins a billion-dollar agriculture industry protecting, by some estimates, more than 20 percent of the state’s remaining agricultural open space.
But the most impassioned advocates seem to be the devotees of what’s certainly a declining bit of Americana, with some folks studying their racing programs like Sumerian scrolls or watching the simulcasts from around the country, and some who know the names of the old harness-racing greats in the framed photos inside the building: Vernon Crank, Harry W. Burright, Edwin D. Bither.
“You come here on a Saturday night, maybe there’s a car show, maybe there’s an Amish band, people are friendly; it doesn’t feel corrupt the way Atlantic City does,” said Donna Diebner of Old Tappan. “The more knowledgeable you are, the better your chances. It’s not moronic like pulling a slot machine lever and hoping the computerized timer goes off.”
Still, even the faithful are a little fatalistic. “We have to find a way to get young people here,” said Paul Birch of Prospect Park, N.J. “We grew up at the track. They grew up at the casino.”
Bob Heyden, the longtime racing analyst and television host known as Hollywood Heyden, was there as a fan on opening night on Sept. 1, 1976, when 42,133 fans streamed in.
“ ‘Car Wash’ was the No. 1 song, Gerald Ford was president, milk was 34 cents a gallon,” he said. (He was off by a few months on “Car Wash,” but who is counting?) “Back then,” he continued, “the place was full of celebrities: Telly Savalas, Jack Klugman, Sylvester Stallone.”
In its first full year, in 1977, the track drew 3.1 million customers over 181 dates, for an average attendance of 17,606. Last year, it drew 425,000 over 147 dates, an average of 2,897. That reflects both falling interest in racing and the technology that allows people to bet anywhere, on their phones, on the Internet and in casinos. And, in particular, it reflects the way most of the competitors at the Meadowlands already have become racinos with slots as well as horses. “I usually go to Yonkers because of the machines,” said Mr. Birch’s friend, Al Demarest. “Once you cross the bridge, it’s seven minutes.”
This is one act in a long game with a lot of players still hoping for a casino at the Meadowlands. One possibility is to have harness racing and thoroughbred racing at Monmouth Park. Another suggests that the people involved in harness racing run the Meadowlands track without state support. Maybe slot machines at the Meadowlands would be fatal to Atlantic City, and maybe, as the faithful here claim, this was just Jersey politics engineered by big casino money and powerful South Jersey politicians. Where else, they say, could the best racing facility around, just over the bridge from Manhattan, lose out to racinos in places like Yonkers and Chester, Pa.?
The harness-racing supporters promise to fight on, so George Anthony, a well-known trainer, handicapper and announcer, preceded his handicapping hints on Friday with an impassioned call to arms.
Later, he said: “We can be the No. 1 casino in the United States, and we’re being overlooked for political reasons. It makes absolutely no sense. It’s a no-brainer. It’s a home run with the bases loaded five times over.”
Ms. Diebner wandered over for some handicapping advice, and he was glad to oblige.
“Do well,” he said. “See you tomorrow night in the winner’s circle.”