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Track owner looks to future after uneasy first year

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Meadowlands Racetrack is reporting year-over-year attendance increases from last season, but as its first season under private ownership comes to a close, its new proprietor calls it successful, but not satisfactory.

"Almost everyone I spoke with thanked me for rescuing the Meadowlands," said Jeff Gural, chairman of New Meadowlands LLC, "but it would be nice if (the attendance numbers) were better."

For its summer finale Aug. 17, the track reported 4,014 in nighttime attendance, compared to 3,941 in 2011. Live wagering was up $424,227, compared to $396,719 in 2011; while the Meadowlands' total handle was $2,479,596 for the 12-race card, compared to $2,171,319 wagered on 10 races in 2011, according to a release.

In December, Gural's entity signed a 31-year lease to operate the track, and will pay at least $500,000 annually to operate the facility starting in five years — he pays $1 in rent for the first five years.

But for its first season, Gural said there were a number of hurdles, including rainy days in the summer that kept crowds away, though the track does have the upper hand in the winter months, when his opposition is closed.

Gural said the track's biggest out-of-state competitors generally have the advantage of slots and larger purses.

"Tracks we're competing with have so much money from slots to increase their purses that it makes it hard for us to get horses to enter our races, because they know it's easier to win at these other tracks and the purses are higher," Gural said.

"Yonkers gets $50 million from slots, and I think Pocono and Chester probably get $25 million each from slots. That's a real problem. People look at the Meadowlands as the number-one track in the sport, and they're expecting high-quality races. When we don't offer that, sometimes people will bet on other tracks."

But Gural said he looks to the new grandstand as an opportunity for growth.

"When we have 3,000 people, the place looks empty, because it holds 30,000," he said. "In the new building, when we get 3,000 people, it will look crowded, because it should hold 3,000 to 5,000."

As part of his lease contract with the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority, Gural must build a new $70 million grandstand by 2016, and add about 1,500 new parking spaces by 2014. Gural built an off-track wagering facility in Bayonne, which opened in July, and must also build and operate three other off-track betting sites.

Gural said site-work preparation has been made on the grandstand, and the company is working to drive piles to setup the steel for the new building. "We are going full speed ahead on the building," he said.

The parking lot, according to Gural, already is completed, in a deal that was struck with MetLife Stadium, "so they could have additional parking during football season," Gural said. "In exchange, they made concessions to us to enable us to keep the sports bar open and share revenue from sponsorships."

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