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BACK FROM THE BRINK, BIG M BOOMING 10 YEARS LATER

Thursday, March 25, 2021

It was just 10 years ago that The Meadowlands was teetering on the brink of extinction. 

The State of New Jersey no longer wanted to be in the harness racing business and the possibility of the track shutting down was genuine. 

That’s when Jeff Gural and his investors stepped in to save the flagship venue of Standardbred racing. 

“I thought that if The Meadowlands closed,” said Gural, the chairman and chief executive officer of the mile oval. “That would be the end of harness racing. But harness racing is my passion. I own horses and two breeding farms. Literally, it was 48 hours to closing. Gov. Chris Christie, he was going to close it, no question in my mind. Truthfully, I was shocked, I thought he was bluffing. So I took a shot.” 

The fact is, The Big M was still clinging to its claim as the top track in the game in March of 2011, but things were anything but grand. 

Business was poor, maybe not by industry standards at the time, but clearly – as compared to now – betting was anything but bustling. 

In 2011, average handle during January was $2,149,062. During February, that number was $2,077,952. 

During 2021, those numbers were $3,398,125 and $3,430,923, respectively, to represent an increase of $2.6 million per weekend. 

Gural opened New Meadowlands Racetrack in 2013 opposite the longtime facility with a structure that had a fresh new look built to more comfortably accommodate the betting public. 

Five years later, in 2018, sports betting came to the mile oval in the form of the FanDuel Sportsbook, and that facility became the most prolific of its kind in the country, including the properties in Las Vegas. 

“Sports betting has saved the day,” said Gural. “Without it, we might be closed. As far as business goes, nobody ever dreamed we would be as dominant as we are. Choosing to partner up with FanDuel was obviously the right decision. Our sportsbook is the biggest in the world, nobody does as much business as we do and it’s very rewarding to see that.” 

Another factor in The Big M’s resurgence came during 2019, when Gov. Phil Murphy and The New Jersey State Legislature provided economic stimulus to New Jersey’s racing industry. By raising purses, Meadowlands management was able to offer a highly competitive purse structure as its battle with nearby states who have purse accounts bloated by slot machine revenues continues. 

The increased purses have enabled The Big M’s race office to offer full fields and 13 races when racing takes place every Friday and Saturday night. 

“We got a subsidy from the state, so purses are OK,” said Gural. “We take over a million dollars a year from sports betting for purses. We have sponsors. Compared to any other track in the country, when you look at the money we spend on stakes, it’s staggering.” 

Gural still has hopes for casino gaming in the Garden State, which could be a game-changer. “I think the best hope for The Meadowlands is to get a casino. Once downstate New York gets them, hopefully we would then get them, which would create a lot of revenue. I do think, long term, that we will get a casino.” 

“The year 2020 is over,” said Jason Settlemoir, the track’s chief operating officer and general manager. “And looking back, it was a testament to how resilient The Meadowlands and the State of New Jersey are. 

“One year after COVID-19 shut the country down, and 10 years after The Big M appeared to be finished, the hard work of Jeff Gural, Gov. Murphy and the State Legislators has seen The Meadowlands increase handle 61 percent from 2011 to 2021. The Big M, the flagship track of Standardbred racing, continues to be the most popular nighttime signal of any breed in North America. When you think of excellence in Standardbred racing, you think of The Meadowlands Racetrack. Together, Mr. Gural and the state have created an incredibly valuable asset for New Jersey.” 

“It’s great to see how everybody is betting our product,” said Gural of The Big M, which has seen wagering of over $3 million on all 12 Saturday night programs during 2021. “What’s helped us is our driver colony. Andy McCarthy stayed here for the winter, and he brought his brother Todd over [from Australia]. Scott Zeron stayed here rather than go to Florida. Tim Tetrick is back and David Miller is expected next week. We really have the best drivers in the world driving here – no track comes close – and I think that makes for a great product.” 

And, hopefully, an even better next 10 years to come. 

THIS ANNIVERSARY’S A GEM: On the “modern list”, a 10-year anniversary is referred to as the diamond jewelry anniversary, and thanks to the efforts of Chris Schick, the co-owner of Cal-Expo in California, a gambling revolution kicked off a decade ago, when the United States Trotting Association partnered with member tracks to form the initiative known as Strategic Wagering. 

To create more interest in the game, Strategic Wagering has offered free program pages to players, as well as guaranteed pools, which is helping to increase the sport’s popularity. 

Pools that are part of the initiative at The Meadowlands have exploded. Lowering takeout has also been a key factor as to why these wagers have flourished. 

“On behalf of horseplayers everywhere,” said Settlemoir. “A heartfelt thank you to Mr. Schick and Strategic Wagering. Let’s have another 10 great years.” 

Free program pages for Strategic Wagering are always available at the USTA’s website, ustrotting.com. 

THE SCHEDULE: Live racing takes place this Friday and Saturday night and has a post time of 6:20 p.m. The Big M TV’s live simulcast presentation of its “Racing from the Meadowlands” pre-game show kicks off at 5:47 p.m. every live racing night. 

TETRICK “IN THE SULKY”: Tim Tetrick will be Dave Little’s guest Saturday night during the pre-game show on “In the Sulky”. 

Tetrick, who returned to regular driving at The Big M last week, will talk about his career and some of the horses he is looking forward to driving during 2021. “In the Sulky” will begin at 5:50 p.m. and can be seen on The Meadowlands’ live simulcast signal. 

SO, YOU WANT MORE ACTION? The Meadowlands’ top-flight menu of simulcast tracks will be highlighted this Saturday (March 27) by the card that will take place at Florida’s Gulfstream Park, which will play host to the Florida Derby, one of the final major preps for the May 1 Kentucky Derby. 

Players can expect a huge pool as the track will offer a mandatory payout of its Rainbow 6. 

The 14-race card at Gulfstream has a post time of 11:30 a.m. The Florida Derby – which is race 14 on the program – will go at 6:40 p.m. 

That evening, Woodbine at Mohawk Park – the preeminent harness track in Canada – will have a mandatory payout of its High-5, which takes place shortly after the conclusion of The Meadowlands’ live card. 

FREE PPs: “Need a program? The Big M has you covered,” said Settlemoir. “We offer free programs every night.” The free past performances are available to anyone who goes to the track’s website, playmeadowlands.com. 

GET SOCIAL: You can always check in with the team at The Meadowlands on Twitter. 

For early changes, racing information and staff selections, go to @themeadowlands or #playbigm. 

On race nights, stay in touch with the Big M’s Dave Brower (@eedoogie), Little (@DaveLittleBigM), Ken Warkentin (@kenvoiceover), Andrew Demsky (@shadesonracing) and Jessica Otten (@JessicaOtten1). 

A HALF-DOZEN CHANCES: The Big M offers players six chances every night to make a score, betting on the track’s popular wagers that offer a low 15 percent takeout. They are: 

·         Race 1: 20-cent Pick-5 

·         Race 3: 20-cent Survivor Pick-7 

·         Race 6: 50-cent Pick-4 

·         Race 8: 20-cent Pick-6 

·         Race 10: 50-cent Pick-4 

·         Race 13: 10-cent Hi-5/Pentafecta 

$100,000 GUARANTEED: Every night, The Meadowlands guarantees big green on both editions of its signature wager, as each 50-cent Pick-4 sports a $50,000 guaranteed pool. 

CHECK OUT THE PICKS: For those who need to get a leg up on the action, go to playmeadowlands.com to see track oddsmaker and analyst Brower’s selections and commentary. Click on the “handicapping” tab and go to “race reviews”. 

Brower’s input is generally available 48 hours before every card. 

THE MAYHEM CONTINUES: College basketball’s stranglehold on the sports world for the month of March continues as the original field of 68 teams for the NCAA Tournament has now been whittled down to 16 with eight games this weekend. 

The action kicks off with four games Saturday (March 27), the first of which begins at 2:40 p.m. with the last of the quartet tipping off at 9:55 p.m. The marquee game pits the Villanova Wildcats against the Baylor Bears (-7½) at 5:15 p.m.  

On Sunday (March 28), the featured game is the first of the foursome, as tournament favorite, the undefeated Gonzaga Bulldogs (-13), take on the Creighton Bluejays. Tipoff is at 2:10 p.m. The last game will start at 9:45 p.m. 

To watch and wager on all the games, come to The Big M’s FanDuel Sportsbook. 

In addition to the college hoops, action will be available on professional golf’s WGC Dell Matchplay, as well as a plethora of other sports, including the NBA, NHL, Premier and Champions League soccer, professional tennis and more. 

The sportsbook is open Sunday-Friday from 10 a.m.-midnight and Saturday from 10 a.m.-2 a.m. The cash counter is open from 10 a.m.-11 p.m. 


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