Friday, February 10, 2023

It’s been reported time and again about how things at The Meadowlands are going swimmingly in 2023, with handle climbing past the $3-million plateau on all nine Friday and Saturday programs that have been contested through the first five weeks of the year.

Cards No. 10 and 11 are set for this Friday (Feb. 10) and Saturday (Feb. 11) at 6:20 p.m.

But what’s changed to create the big business? Nothing outrageous, except for some adjustments – some subtle, some not so much – that have gone a long way to fuel the uptick in action at The Big M.

The first – and likely most impactful factor – is field size. Racing secretary Scott Warren and his staff have had an overflowing entry box that goes back to last fall, and as a result, The Meadowlands now cards 14 races a night, instead of 13, which was the norm for several years.

That increase of 7.7 percent may seem small, but the race office has been able to write an extra race every night, with a vast majority of the dashes having a full field of 10. That’s two more races every race week during a calendar year that will have 44 weeks of racing. It’s considerable. Last weekend (Feb. 3-4), for example, 24 of the 28 races were scheduled to have 10-horse fields (Friday’s card was canceled due to extreme cold conditions). Three had nine, and the one race that sent eight to the gate was the Saturday co-feature.

“We cannot thank our horsemen enough for supporting our entry box the way they have,” said track Chief Operating Officer and General Manager Jason Settlemoir. “You cannot put out a product like ours – with big fields and a low percentage of winning favorites – without horsemen supporting you. We have that and are extremely grateful for it.”

So big fields drive the machine, and with the race office writing hyper-competitive events, the percentage of winning favorites at The Meadowlands is the lowest in the industry. For the Big M faithful, that makes for good business.

Currently, chalk at The Meadowlands clicks at a success rate of 34. That number compares favorably with the top Thoroughbred tracks in racing.

Here are some current percentages of winning favorites at some of the biggest venues in racing (minimum 100 races, through Feb. 5):

  • Harness: Meadowlands, 34; Woodbine Mohawk Park, 42; Northfield, 42; Dover, 46; Yonkers, 46; Monticello, 49; Freehold, 49.
  • Thoroughbred (courtesy of Brisnet): Santa Anita, 29; Laurel, 33, Aqueduct, 34; Gulfstream, 35; Tampa Bay, 38.

Given how crowded the current gambling marketplace is, the highly competitive product offered at The Big M is one that appeals to players. They see favorites as vulnerable, which was the vision of Joe DeFrank and Bob Quigley when they got The Meadowlands going with a new brand of harness racing in 1976.

Current Big M President and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Gural, with Settlemoir at the helm of the day-to-day operation, have continued that tradition after working to bring the track back from near extinction a little over a decade ago, when Gural refused to let the harness game in the Garden State wilt and die. Gural insisted on the “no tuck” rule at the track just off the N.J. Turnpike, which has made the already competitive racing a far tougher task for handicappers of all skill levels.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the thought of a harness track being top-ranked in handle at night would have been ridiculous, but The Big M is the current king of the nighttime – taking on all Standardbred and Thoroughbred comers – with their nightly 2023 average above $3 million.

A horsemen colony that supports the box, a staff that puts together competitive races in one of the most comfortable venues in the game and a loyal fan base that bets with verve 28 times every weekend. These are the things that have seen business boom at The Meadowlands.

“We’d love to match 2021 and average $3 million per night in handle,” said Settlemoir. “And if we can continue to provide the type of racing we’ve been providing for some time now, hopefully, that’s what we’ll be able to accomplish in 2023.”