More races will bring less to N.J.

June 18, 1992|By Bill Finley | Bill Finley,New York Daily News

What is a racetrack?

This is not a trick question, only a difficult one. Time is up. . . in 1992, what is a racetrack?

Twenty-five years ago, the answer was simple: a place that ran races for horses for a short period of time during the year and took parimutuel betting at the track; a place that was popular, uncomplicated and successful.

That definition obviously no longer applies, but what does? Who can say? The rules seem to change by the day.

In the months ahead, the definition of a New Jersey racetrack will undergo considerable change. Legislation has passed in Jersey legalizing daily out-of-state simulcasts into both the Atlantic City casinos and the state's five racetracks. Garden State Park will be the first under way, starting with daily simulcasts from Laurel in July.

At the Meadowlands, nothing will start until sometime in early September when simulcasts from Maryland, Arlington, Keeneland and, perhaps, Hialeah could become part of the betting menu.

"We'll try and have a diversified menu by the fall and see what the fans like and don't like," said Hal Handel, executive vice president of racing for the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. "We'll take in one or two tracks a day, but no more than that."

Monmouth Park will not join the simulcasting frenzy until a later date.

So then what? Will the definition of a New Jersey racetrack be a lifeless betting factory that will bury and burn out its customers?

When a track offers fans a chance to overindulge, problems inevitably surface. Rockingham Park in New Hampshire offered, at various times, simulcasting from Meadowlands, Garden State, Foxboro, Suffolk Downs and Penn National and then watched with alarm as on-track business collapsed. Tellers at the $50 windows told management that their best customers stopped showing up by the end of the week. By then, they were broke.

Rockingham finally ended all simulcasts, except for single major races, and began to concentrate on the live product.

The two Philadelphia-area tracks -- Garden State and Philadelphia Park -- are both simulcast-mad and both are struggling desperately. There is probably a connection between the two.

According to Racing Resources Group, in 1985, when the only available horse-race betting in the Delaware Valley was on-track at Brandywine, Liberty Bell, Philadelphia Park and Garden State, total handle for the 783 available cards was $494 million. Four years later, with the closing of Liberty Bell, the addition of phone wagering in Pennsylvania and simulcasting in both states legalized, there were 1,739 total cards in the area. With more than 10,000 additional races to bet on, total handle increased only $14 million.

It's obvious what's happening there. Virtually the same amount of money is being bet, and probably by the same people, only it's being spread out in six or seven different directions. The same handle is now shared by more interests and the racetracks receive far less of slightly more total wagering.

The Meadowlands and Monmouth can be trusted to take a proper and cautious approach to the newfound opportunities. To experiment is fine, but if it proves to be a problem, end it and end it fast.

Racetracks do not seem to understand the realities of gambling. People do not have infinite amounts of money to lose at the track and virtually everyone does lose. You can only make a guy bleed so much before you kill him.

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