Symposium defines equines as economic engine for N.J.

Leaders debate how N.J. can remain competitive in horse racing, gaming market


Dr. David Meirs II, owner of Walnridge Farm, called the educational symposiumon the state’s equine industry the biggest social and political event in Upper Freehold in 200 years.

Monmouth County and Mercer County leaders hosted the event on Sept. 27 at Perretti Farms, New Jersey’s largest horse farm, in response to Gov. Chris Christie’s Advisory Commission on New Jersey Gaming, Sports and Entertainment, which released a report on the future of gaming in the state. The report made recommendations such as 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 altogether.

Among the attendees at the bipartisan symposium were District 12 Sen. Jennifer Beck, Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon and Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande; District 30 Assemblymen Ron Dancer and Joseph Malone; District 13 Assemblyman Sam Thompson; District 9 Assemblywoman DiAnne Gove; District 24 Assemblywoman Alison McHose; District 38 Assemblywoman Connie Wagner; District 28 Assemblyman Ralph Caputo; Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders Director Lillian Burry; Upper Freehold Township Administrator Dianne Kelly; and Monmouth Conservation Foundation Executive Director Adele Keller.

Dancer, of New Egypt, the son of harness racing legend Stanley Dancer, said that the Legislature is building a consensus to give a bipartisan direction toward drafting legislation to preserve and enhance the racing industry.

“In New Jersey, the flagship is the Meadowlands Racetrack,” Dancer said. “I’m optimistic. I’ve never seen the industry come together this way in my or my dad’s lifetime.”

Dancer said all aspects of the horse industry— those who race thoroughbreds and standardbreds and those who show or own pleasure horses — have galvanized.

Anthony Perretti welcomed symposium visitors to his family’s farm, the No. 1 breeding farm in the state.

“If the Meadowlands Racetrack is gone, what does New Jersey lose? The entire standardbred industry,” Perretti said.

Perretti said the Meadowlands is the best harness track in the country, responsible for 34 percent of all harness track wagering and attracting horsemen from all over the world. Closing the track would mean New Jersey losing the Hambletonian, the biggest trotting race in the world. NBC televised the last race, which garnered over $8 million in betting, a quarter of which came from Europe, he said. Closing the track would also mean losing the $1 million Meadowlands Pace, which is the No. 1 pacing race in the country, he said.

“We lose some of the best standardbred farms in the country, where horses are bred and raised in New Jersey for the Hambletonian, the Meadowlands Pace and for worldwide competition,” Perretti said, adding that the Hambletonian favorite this year and winners the last two years were bred in New Jersey.

Dr. Scott Palmer, owner of the New Jersey Equine Clinic in Millstone, a 130-acre preserved property, said that both the racing and gaming industries in the state are in trouble. Citing competition from neighboring states, Palmer said the only way for New Jersey to remain competitive in the mid-Atlantic racing and gaming market is for the state’s casino and racing industries to work together to create a unified racing and gaming marketplace that keeps state dollars in New Jersey and attracts worldwide wagering interests.

“The status quo is no longer an option,” he said.

Palmer said the most straightforward solution is to put slot machines at the Meadowlands, estimating the move would bring a billion dollars of new income into the state annually. He also said that activating the existing licenses for off-track wagering (OTW) could generate $60 million per year. Palmer suggested using promotional efforts at the racetracks that could be redeemed in Atlantic City and vice-versa.

“Divided we will lose open space in New Jersey and squander one of our most precious natural resources and recreational opportunities — the horse industry,” he said, adding that agribusiness in the state is dependent in large part on the equine industry.

Tom Swales, president of the Thoroughbred Breeders Association of New Jersey and owner of the 125-acre Tee-N-Jay Farm in Monroe, said his thoroughbred farm has been in the family for four generations.

“My farm is the last one of its kind in the entire 320-plus square miles of Middlesex County,” Swales said. “And if both shortterm and long-term solutions are not created in a timely fashion, I will not be able to say that much longer.”

Swales said that without slots or subsidies for the horse racing industry, there may not be a future for racing in the state. He noted that Atlantic City casinos “are subsidized by the lowest gaming tax east of the Mississippi and a number of other tax breaks and infusions of capital.”

Swales also mentioned that the state’s casino industry had been paying a $30 million subsidy to the racing industry for the past three years to keep slot machines out of racetracks. While the casino industry has decided against continuing the subsidy, the state has not given the racing industry the go-ahead to pursue slots at the tracks.

“Horse racing is directly responsible for over $160 million in state, federal and local tax revenue, and without racing, that money is gone,” Swales said. “Isn’t a $160 million revenue source worth a $30 million investment, at least until the OTWs are finally built out?”

Bix DeMeo, who manages Showplace Farm in Millstone, said the 150-acre property, established in 1978 after the Meadowlands opened, is home to 52 independent purveyors. DeMeo said Showplace Farm is Millstone’s biggest ratable, paying $95,000 a year in taxes without adding children to the school system. The farm employs more than 50 people and is an “agribusiness integral to the lifeblood of the small businesses in our community,” he said.

The 400 horses stabled at Showplace Farm are worth an estimated $40 million, according to DeMeo.

Malone said New Jersey should change its motto from the Garden State to the Stupid State for allowing itself to be surrounded by racinos in neighboring states and not coming up with a plan to join its own casino and racing industries.

He also said that the state’s casino industry has plans to build a megacasino at the Meadowlands without horse racing.

“They want the property,” he said. “It’s a battle. We’ve got to be ready to fight, get bloody and win.”

Beck said that the state’s horse racing industry has developed a five-year business plan to present to Christie that would retain New Jersey racing’s position as a world-class operation.

Said Burry: “I don’t think Chris Christie gets it, and we have to get on him. That’s where the answer is.”