With the opening of Harrah’s Chester on Friday, the Meadowlands racing office staff found far fewer entries in the box than it needed to card its usual 13-race programs with full, 10-horse fields for its March 18-19 cards. On Friday and Saturday, the Meadowlands has carded 11 races, but only three races each night have 10-horse fields.
Ten-horse fields are the engine that drives betting and big handles at the Meadowlands and Jeff Gural, who continues his work to come up with a plan to lease the track, made note of the decline in entries. “We were disappointed with the fact that many trainers entered their horses at tracks other than the Meadowlands Friday and Saturday and you would think they could have waited two weeks,” said Gural in reference to his March 31 deadline to put together a deal to take over the Meadowlands from the state of New Jersey. “Our handle continues to decline which makes it that much harder to finance (the new plan).”
Meadowlands race secretary Peter Koch said he had 82 horses entered for Saturday’s card. “We were down 50 horses from the previous Saturday’s draw, so Chester opening clearly had an effect,” said Koch, who added that he made phone calls to try to fill out the Four Leaf Clover final, and also combined classes and moved some horses from one class to another.
Koch said one of his biggest problems is that trainers often believe the competition is easier at other tracks and thus opt to race there instead of at the Meadowlands. Koch wrote a $25,000-$35,000 claimer for Saturday, put a purse of $19,000 on it, and got six entries. Chester has a straight $25,000 claimer on Sunday, with a purse of $16,000, and also got six entries. Trainer Ron Burke has an entry for both races.
“It’s hard to get somebody to go into a $25,000 claimer at the Meadowlands when they know it could go in 1:49.4,” said Koch.
Koch said he thinks purses for some of his classes may be increased for next week’s races to attract horses. Also, next week’s Thursday card will include the finals of the Night Styles and Horse & Groom series finals, plus a Night Styles consolation (they were moved because of the cancellation on March 10), so that will push horses into the Friday and Saturday cards.
Demand for racehorses appears to be a problem for more tracks than just the Meadowlands. Harrah’s Chester did not fill every program to capacity, and Woodbine’s Saturday program only has two 10-horse fields, with 92 horses entered and 90 drawn. Yonkers probably dodged a bullet by having two series, the Sagamore and Petticoat, begin this weekend and attract enough entries for seven divisions each.
Woodbine race secretary Scott McKelvie said a few factors have caused his horse shortage, including bad weather, which has delayed horses coming back to race, and the opening of Georgian Downs.
Race secretaries have always phoned trainers when they needed horses to fill a class and/or had to move a horse from one class to another to fill a race. However, no one remembers any track ever including the following notice on its condition sheet, as Harrah’s Chester did: “The Racing Office reserves the right to move any horse to a more competitive class, if deemed necessary.”
Fewer horses are being bred and registered every year. The U.S. Trotting Association’s numbers show just 7,256 foals registered in 2009, down from 8,627 in 2008, with that figure down from 9,767 in 2006.
Tom Charters, president and CEO of The Hambletonian Society, worked as a race secretary for many years. Charters says times have changed.
“I think it’s going to be very difficult in the future to fill races because we’ve not only expanded dates, but we’ve also expanded the number of races on the card,” said Charters. “We’ve gone from nine or 10 races a card to 13 or sometimes even 15 or 16 races.”--By Kathy Parker