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 INVESTIGATION: Progress in fight to save racetrack?

Breaking News

By Chris Neidenberg / Reporter

EAST RUTHERFORD (Dec. 6, 2010) — In an interview with The Leader, the head of the Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association of New Jersey recently offered faint hope that the Meadowlands Racetrack can be saved, via the association’s leasing it from the state, based on the tone of a meeting involving himself and two key aides to Gov. Chris Christie.

Tom Luchento, president of the state’s leading interest group on harness racing, spoke by phone Thursday, Dec. 2, shortly after returning from a meeting with Chief Counsel Jeff Ciesa and Special Counsel Craig Domalewski.

He cautioned that the parties were only in the preliminary stages of discussion. But Luchento described himself as optimistic on two fronts: that racing will at least continue temporarily in January, following completion of the December schedule, and over the long term, permanently.

That is, if the parties can strike a deal letting his horsemen’s group rent the 34-year-old track directly.

In November, Christie’s Hanson commission recommended ultimately closing the track at some point, but offered no specific timetable.

“It’s really up to the governor,” said Luchento. “I think, at the end of the day, everything will be fine. While nothing is guaranteed, let me say I am extremely optimistic that we can reach an agreement to restart next month, and then achieve our ultimate goal of permanently remaining in business at the Meadowlands, through a lease agreement.”

“I think we developed a much better understanding of the governor’s concerns,” Luchento continued. “At the same time, my impression is he is sincere in wanting to work with us, to try reaching a mutually-beneficial solution for both parties. It also helps that Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature don’t want to see the track close.”

Luchento’s remarks seem to suggest the association would be willing to assume more of a financial burden in operating and maintaining the track, now owned by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority.

The Hanson commission estimated the taxpayer-supported facility annually loses about $11 million. It eventually wants to see the local track’s regular harness racing cards moved to Monmouth Park, some time in 2011.

“If progress is indeed being made to keep the track, that’s excellent news,” Mayor James Cassella said, upon hearing of Luchento’s remarks. “We must do everything we can to prevent the other undesirable uses (such as a massive infusion of new housing stock) from ever taking hold.”

“But, in reality, the truth is the state has kept affected communities near the track completely in the dark as to what’s actually been happening,” the mayor alleged. “It’s not just an East Rutherford issue.”

Recently, the Democrat-controlled state Senate approved a package of seven bills designed to blend the interests of Atlantic City casinos with the needs of New Jersey’s horse racing enterprises, particularly at the Meadowlands, which casinos in South Jersey see as a major competitor for gaming customers from the New York metropolitan area.

In a Nov. 22 press release, Senate majority spokesman Jason Butkowski announced that the full body, with broad bipartisan support, moved to pass the package on to the Democrat-controlled Assembly for committee review.

State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-36) sponsored three bills, all aimed at trying to rejuvenate the state’s ailing racing industry.

Sarlo, whose district hosts the track, emerged as a key figure in the Legislative Gaming Summit, which held meetings statewide throughout 2010 in trying to develop measures to aid the state’s gaming interests. Butkowski noted the seven proposals resulted from the gatherings, “and are intended to bolster economic activity and maintain competitiveness for our gaming industries.”

Such interests, supporters of reform maintain, have been adversely affected by competition. It has come in the form of newer casinos, and tracks featuring slot machines, setting up shop in adjacent states.

Sarlo’s proposals are:

S-2390 — it would lower the minimum requirement for the number of harness racing dates scheduled at the Meadowlands to 100 per season. If enacted, he claimed, the move would “ensure larger purses and more prestigious races at the race track each year.”

S-2394 — it would create a special “horse incentive fund,” derived from sales and use taxes collected from activities including horse racing and breeding, for programs aimed at improving the industry. The account would be maintained by the state Department of Public Safety. Sarlo maintains the fund will help rejuvenate racehorse breeding, which, like racing, “is also in major need of investment.”

S-1980 — seeks various changes to the state’s Off-Track Wagering Account Act, including requiring owners of 15 licenses, issued for betting parlors under development, to surrender them to horsemen’s organizations if they fail to make significant progress toward successfully running the facilities. And if the horsemen’s groups also fail in the area, moribund licenses could ultimately be put up for bid to “private interests” demonstrating the wherewithal to successfully operate sites.

Nether Sarlo, nor Butkowski, could be reached directly for further comment.

Tom Hester, Assembly majority spokesman, noted in a Dec. 2 e-mail that only one of the seven bills had reached Christie’s desk for consideration.

As for Sarlo’s proposals, he noted the Assembly originally approved S-1980 in May but must now reconsider it “to match” a newer Senate version. Hester added that S-2390 and S-2394 are pending before the Assembly’s Oversight, Regulatory and Gaming Committee.

“No hearings have been scheduled by the committees yet,” he reported on Dec. 2.

Luchento, an active participant in the Legislative Gaming Summit, said his group supports the package as a good balance between the needs of the Garden State’s horse racing and casino interests.

“The Legislature can pass all the bills it wants but the governor needs to sign them,” he said. “We hope he will get on board and endorse them.”

In a Dec. 3 e-mail, Christie Deputy Press Secretary Kevin Roberts declined comment on Luchento’s statements and any proposed new legislation.

“The governor continues to meet with the interested parties, including members of the Legislature and affected industries, to work through these issues,” he stated. “But we have no additional comment at this time.”


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