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LUCHENTO: I BELIEVE THERE WILL BE RACING AT BIG M IN 2011

LUCHENTO: I BELIEVE THERE WILL BE RACING AT BIG M IN 2011
By Mike Farrell
Harness Racing Update, November 29, 2010


The days seem to fly by as we head into the year-end holidays. We've already torn Thanksgiving off the calendar with Christmas just around the corner. Now if Santa is checking his list, and checking it twice, he will notice something conspicuously missing: a 2011 schedule for The Meadowlands.

The hope that a new year traditionally delivers has given way to doubt and despair as Gov. Chris Christie and Jon Hanson threaten to lay waste to New Jersey's racing industry.

So much for holiday cheer!

There is a glimmer of hope, a growing expectation that there will be racing at the Meadowlands come January.

Nothing is guaranteed, but several persons close to the situation believe the Meadowlands will continue in the new year, despite the efforts of Christie and Hanson to kill it.

Tom Luchento, president of the Standardbred Breeders & Owners Association, is one of the believers.

"I still have faith," Luchento said. "There are meetings and different things set up. It's all up to the governor when they bring they bring this stuff to him, whether he vetoes it or not. In my heart of hearts, I believe there will be racing there. How small the meet will be at the Meadowlands, I can't speculate."

This looks like a year ahead unlike any other in New Jersey racing. Normally a schedule is set in November, leaving owners and horsemen plenty of time to arrange training and shipping schedules. It's pure guesswork this time.

The Meadowlands Racetrack website carries a colorful calendar highlighting the race dates through Dec. 18, the close of the current harness meet. It is ominously silent with respect to 2011. It's all part of the big chill that followed the supplemental report from the Hanson committee on Nov. 15.

The latest Hanson salvo proposed closing the Meadowlands in 2011, except for a brief Hambletonian Grand Circuit week in August. The most comfort offered was a 30-day Standardbred meet at Monmouth Park.

The report left the Meadowlands in limbo, the stakes schedule in shambles, and the horsemen and employees twisting in the wind while the clock ticks loudly, counting down to Jan. 1.

The picture should be clearer by mid December. Carl Goldberg, chairman of the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority that owns and operates Monmouth and Meadowlands, promised a schedule within 30 days during the authority's last meeting on Nov. 19.

"We all recognize that it is everybody's goal here to maintain the viability of horse racing in New Jersey," Goldberg told the Bergen Record at the meeting. "Clearly, it is a complex set of issues, and there is a cause and effect to everything."

John Samerjan, the NJSEA spokesman, said this week "no update. Meetings are ongoing." At least they are still talking.

The worst-case scenario is no Meadowlands meet in 2011. That seems unlikely, unless Christie and Hanson are committed to completely destroying an asset they claim they want to sell. The NJSEA is required to race 141 live Standardbred and 141 live Thoroughbred programs in order to maintain the state's three off-track wagering facilities, the phone betting network and the internet wagering platform. Those requirements were reinforced by a court approved settlement in 2004.

Unilaterally wiping out, or reducing the racing schedule, would trigger a nuclear winter for New Jersey racing in which everything—live, simulcast and internet wagering— is wiped out.

"In their mind, this is where the rub comes, they think that if they shut us down, they think they'll continue to run OTWs, the internet and all this other stuff," Luchento said. "Well, P.S. I got news for them. If we don't race, they don't have any signals."

That requirement can be amended, with the horsemen's consent. That's what happened at Monmouth this summer when the season was cut in half to create an "Elite Meet".

Negotiated reductions are the clear legal path to reducing the schedule. Any effort to ram through a short season will undoubtedly trigger rounds of costly litigation to enforce the existing provisions.

"I don't know, but they seem to have an agenda to get rid of us as quickly as they can to get a casino up there on their own so they don't have to share a small piece with racing," Luchento said. "For them to do that, they have to face a lot of legal hurdles. We'll be in court. If they think they're going to get us out and bring casinos in there, they've got another guess coming."

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