Thursday, December 12, 2013
At the New Meadowlands, Size Does Matter
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ, December 6, 2013—No matter the catchphrase of the moment, size matters.
The conventional measures usually are summed it up in one of two ways: Bigger Is Better or Less Is More. However, there’s another phrase that might capture the essence of a thing in a third way: Just Right.
And that probably is the most apt description of the New Meadowlands, as it is commonly known. It's amazing what can be done these days for what has become the paltry sum of $92 million.
The New Meadowlands is an example of how less is more works in terms of entertainment, excitement. and utility. Whatever measure horseplayers bring to their wagering experience, chances are they will feel right at home.
Racetrack downsizing began in essence at the “New Gulfstream Park,” a symbol of Frank Stronach’s vision of the racetrack of the future, not a lynchpin for upscale shopping but rather a more intimate horse racing experience.
The new Gulfstream, which does not charge for admission or parking, still has detractors--nothing that hasn’t been heard before: “Too small…Too expensive…No traditional paddock setting in which to enjoy the sunshine…” etc., etc.
But while it still might suffer from perception problems, it is how all future tracks will be constructed, i.e., to accommodate smaller crowds. With the exception of event days, success is now measured by the handle metric anyway and not bodies in the building.
The guess is that last Friday’s bad weather, combined with holiday shopping, was responsible for an attendance I guesstimated at about 2,000. But the energy was palpable; the vibe, positive.
Large, traditional venues are no longer needed and feel out of step. Big racetracks these days more often resemble depressing monuments to the past that come alive only when people bother to show up.
The new reality is betting in pajamas, especially now that alternative forms of wagering are an online reality that continues growing by the day. What today’s tracks must provide is a lively, entertaining atmosphere. The unfettered days of horse betting exclusivity are over.
The size of the New Meadowlands is sensible in this era. It can handle crowds of 3,000 comfortably and easily, but estimates indicate it can handle five times that amount on Hambo Day or on Meadowlands Pace night.
The smaller facility is spacious, in a modern casino sort of way. "It's critical [that] a track seems crowded," owner Jeff Gural said recently.
"You can't expect people to come to empty racetracks. I think the industry has to promote itself. [Racinos] need to use some of that slot machine money for marketing or it has no future."
Despite its size, there is no shortage of bars or restaurants, from a large sports bar space featuring enough huge screens to follow many tracks or sporting events simultaneously, to a three-tiered trackside restaurant called Pink which was filled to capacity despite the windy and rainy atmospherics.
On that same floor—both available via a centrally located escalator and elevators—is a private area called Trotters, dedicated to owners. The equivalent of a Thoroughbred Turf and Field Club, membership costs $2,500 per year.
In addition to leather chair seating overlooking the track, Trotters offers tables for upscale buffet dining with reasonable tiered pricing. The public is also welcome depending on availability. The food is first rate.
While I cannot attest to the quality of the fare at traditional racetrack food stands, posted prices were also reasonable, including, from memory, $2 soft drinks; name brand splits of wine for $6 and fresh sandwiches for $7.95.
On the first floor I counted three simulcast areas, one free, albeit on the small size, a more exclusive section for $3 with large personal monitors in a traditional simulcast setting, and an exclusive VIP section.
No matter where you were, there was easy access to the track apron. There was space devoted to photo opportunities and contest areas and no shortage of customer service sections with employees typical of the kind of service Meadowlands customers have come to expect.
Without casino revenue, the New Meadowlands must survive on betting handle and sales from betting services, food and beverages. Gural, a harness racing lover and horseplaying-handicapper, believes the new venue could not survive if it had to maintain a backstretch area.
Resultantly, sheds were razed and a modern holding barn about the size of a small airplane hangar was erected, large enough to house 10 horses per race on the typical 13-race program. All horses ship in from farms and racetracks in New Jersey and surrounding areas.
The original building is closed and, before demolition, has been taken over by the NFL for its “NFL Experience” exhibition. This season’s Super Bowl will be played next door at Met Life Stadium. The new facility also will be closed to help provide space for the event.
Fans, just as they did three decades ago, can still get on the property from either from an entrance on Paterson Plank Road, Route 3, or the famed Exit 16W of the Jersey Turnpike.
It should be recalled that the original New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, under the stewardship of super-agent and theater impresario Sonny Werblin and the respected racetrack executive, Bob Quigley, paid for the original Giants Stadium on the backs of horseplayers.
The New Meadowlands has followed the example of the original facility that understood how to cater to its customers. It gave grandstand and clubhouse fans separate floors, a break from the traditional half-and-half racetrack delineation.
The Meadowlands defined what an upscale racetrack restaurant should be when it created “Pegasus.” That kind of luxury is still available, now in the form of private suits and sky boxes. And the Meadowlands is proud of its racing heritage.
Last Friday was the fourth night of racing at the new facility and it honored part of its past by celebrating a visit from vacationing NYRA announcer Tom Durkin, who called Meadowlands races for eight years and helped put the track on the national radar.
Durkin was interviewed by host Ken Warkentin in an open TV studio located not far from the track’s entrance. The conversation included two memorable harness calls; Nihilator’s then otherworldly 1:50 3/5 pacing mile and the “too-close-to-call” dead heat between Park Avenue Joe and Probe in the 1989 Hambletonian.
Following the interview, fans came by to shake hands, many taking selfies with the race caller on their smartphones.
And so on a night not fit for man, beast, or the Cross Bronx Expressway, time stopped as tradition met the future head on. It was the night’s second dead heat.