N.J. horse racing enthusiasts react to gaming summit

Equine industry representatives walk away from first of three sessions with wary optimism

BY JANE MEGGITT Correspondent

Supporters of New Jersey’s horse racing industry descended on the first gaming summit in Atlantic City on Aug. 6 with the hope of keeping the sport alive in the state.

On July 21, Gov. Chris Christie’s Advisory Commission on New Jersey Gaming, Sports and Entertainment released a report on the future of gaming in the state. Called the Hanson Report, after the commission’s chairman, Jon Hanson, the report provides recommendations for horse racing in the state, including privatizing the state-owned Meadowlands and Monmouth Park racetracks, forbidding horse racing venues from installing slot machines, and throwing state support behind Atlantic City gaming.

One option in the report would eliminate harness racing in the state. In reaction to the report, approximately 500 people in the racing industry and other equine enthusiasts made the trek to Atlantic City for the summit. Those from central New Jersey went alone or boarded buses that left from major training centers in the area, such as Showplace Farms in Millstone, Gaitway Farm in Manalapan, and White Birch Farm in Upper Freehold. The summit took place one day before harness racing’s biggest annual event — the Hambletonian — at the Meadowlands.

Bob Marks, marketing director of Perretti Farms in Upper Freehold, said the racing industry had a wonderful turnout at the summit to demonstrate solidarity in the call to post.

“Obviously there are many in the northern and central parts of the state who do not agree with the governor’s plan to revitalize Atlantic City while ignoring the substantial breeding industry within Monmouth County,” Marks said.

Freehold’s Ellen Manzi, wife of Hall of Fame driver Catello “Cat” Manzi and a real estate agent with Prudential in Millstone, said horse enthusiasts walked away from the first session of the summit feeling optimistic.

“Will it be that way every time?” Manzi said. “I can’t say. But today was a great effort by the racehorse community, considering that it was held the day before our biggest race day of the year.”

Manzi said the state’s horse racing industry showed the government that it’s an indispensable united front. The next step, she said, is for the general public to demonstrate to Christie that the equine economy in the state is closely tied to the general economy.

“The New Jersey horse economy reaches to restaurants, delis, gas stations, school districts, crop growers, fence companies, insurance companies, golf courses, real estate, doctors, dentists, and more,” Manzi said. “Stay tuned! The New Jersey equine community is united and solidifying.”

Leo McNamara, executive administrator of the Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association of New Jersey, said state legislators seem better informed about the state’s horse industry than those who served on the Hanson commission.

“They were clear in their thoughts that every job in New Jersey is important and there will be no clear winners and losers like the Hanson report laid out,” McNamara said. “Overall, a very good day for the horse industry.”

Kim Jessome, of Millstone, said she was pleasantly surprised to hear Sen. Paul Sarlo (36th District) question Atlantic City casino President Mark Juiliano into admitting at the summit that video lottery terminal (VLT) installation at the Meadowlands would not impact casino business in Atlantic City.

“This is a huge statement,” she said. “The Democrats are obviously divided on the gaming issue, with what appears to be north versus south [Jersey].”

A Democratic commission hosted the summit, which allowed politicians on both sides of the issue of maintaining horse racing in the state to express their viewpoints.

Jessome said New Jersey racing enthusiasts have just begun to fight and have not given up on converting the Meadowlands into a “racino” — a racetrack casino.

“The jobs that it would not only save but would also create is, in my opinion, one of the many things New Jersey needs to get back going in the right direction,” she said.

Jessome said horse enthusiasts have to maintain a presence at all of the sessions of the gaming summit and continue to email and call the governor and legislators with their viewpoints. She also noted that the issue affects New Jersey farmers, businesses, hunting clubs and others who enjoy the open space and farms that horse-related agriculture creates.

“We need to include more people to join in our fight to show the state government just how many taxpayers and ultimately voters are involved in one form or another with the horsemen,” Jessome said.

The second session of the summit will be held at the Meadowlands next month.