New Jersey is a very weird place where very weird things happen. The most recent oddity in The Garden State is that after 30 years as the Mecca of harness racing, the trotting horses are about to get their walking papers owing in part to budgetary constraints being enforced by Governor Chris Christie.
Ironically, despite its weirdness and joke target-ability, New Jersey is often seen by outsiders as uninteresting place that somehow manages to inspire a lot of interest.
No writers have ever had an easier time thinking up a title for a book than the two men who penned the popular coffee table book, “Weird New Jersey.”
The Meadowlands Racetrack was not spared from this weirdness, and it all began on the very first night.
Back in September of 1976, then Governor Brendan Byrne tried to make a speech as he cut the ceremonial ribbon crossing the finish line. Unfortunately for Byrne, he was booed into oblivion and the speech never came off as planned. Byrne barely managed to clip the ribbon before his people hustled him away from the venomous crowd.
Seems that Governor Byrne ran for office on a strict platform of “No State Income Tax” but as soon as his victory streamers stopped falling on election night, he initialized one of the most expensive state income taxes in the nation — but wait, it gets weirder.
Despite the hatred spewed at him by those 50,000+ opening nighters, Byrne was reelected to a second term.
Could the reason be that the people who go to the races, just happen to be representative of the people who don’t vote? No, that would be too easy an explanation and nothing that happens in New Jersey can be explained easily — but I’ll try.
What if the answer is that weird New Jerseyans have elected a governor who is perhaps not corrupt and is doing exactly what he promised to do during his campaign? Were any of the horse people listening to his campaign promises? Maybe they were, but they all seem to have the nave notion that everybody cares about harness racing. They couldn’t be more wrong.
Horsemen wanted an honest politician? Well maybe they just got one. It’s an old case of be careful what you wish for because prior to the election, Chris Christie made no secret of the fact that he thought horse racing was a bad bleed. Why have such contempt for a man who is keeping his campaign promises?
The truth is that your garden variety, weird New Jersey folks do not care about harness racing and they’ve been proving that more and more for over a decade. They proved it by not going to the track because they simply are not interested, and the reason they’re not interested is because what little they do know about harness racing in The Garden State is dipped in tales of horse doping and race fixing.
Scandals in Atlantic City are a different animal. They are corporate things, and the average person neither reads about these incidents nor do they care about them. Nobody has ever uncovered a rigged roulette wheel or a hot set of dice down there — harness racing can’t make the same claim.
New Jerseyans simply aren’t interested in the sport that their state and The Meadowlands practically put on the map — ergo, weird New Jersey.
Sure there are breeders and training facilities that have been supporting the state’s agriculture for nearly a century, but those days are long gone. To claim racehorses as an agricultural commodity seems very disingenuous and downright silly.
A 300 acre racehorse farm doesn’t contribute anywhere near as much in tax dollars as would the 300 luxury homes that could be built there, and a lot of these horsemen who bemoan the fall of the farm, are themselves guilty of selling off land to developers for big money. Central and southwestern New Jersey are full of developments that used to be breeding and training farms back when the trotting game was good — but the real estate market was better.
The truth hurts and the simple fact is that New Jersey did not cling to harness racing as it’s own unique brand because that kind of heartfelt commitment would have required deep thinking and foresighted leadership. There never was any of that in New Jersey racing despite claims to the contrary.
A governor’s job is the toughest and most unlovable job of any in politics and despite the fact that some people in New Jersey love harness racing, the truth is that pretty much everyone else does not, and if it’s draining money from the state, then measures must be taken to fix that drain.