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Meadowlands track operator set for early start of racing season

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Jeff Gural at the construction site of the new grandstand. (NJBIZ file photo)
Jeff Gural at the construction site of the new grandstand. (NJBIZ file photo)

It’s been only a year since Jeff Gural took the reins at the Meadowlands Racetrack, but he isn’t waiting long before trying to adapt to some of his earliest challenges.

The historic harness racing venue will reopen tonight to kick off its 2013 season, incorporating several changes Gural hopes will boost business and narrow the gap between his track and “racinos” in other states. The new year also will bring a new grandstand to the 36-year-old track, though it’s not expected to be open until the fall.

The changes for 2013 start with a new schedule that includes more live race dates in cold-weather months, when fewer tracks are open and when “there’s less for people to do,” Gural said. After ending its main season Aug. 3 — two weeks earlier than usual — the Meadowlands will hold a fall calendar from Thanksgiving weekend to late December.

“My observations have been that we simply do better in the winter,” said Gural, chairman of New Meadowlands Racetrack LLC. “It’s kind of a mystery, but those are the facts.”

The venue also has added dates and prizes to encourage races with older horses, which he said is attractive to hardcore customers. And the Meadowlands is introducing “classified” racing starting tonight — meaning horses are categorized by ability, not their prior winnings, in an attempt to make races more competitive and have full fields.

Gural’s operating group, which took control of the state-owned track last December, has in store several other changes geared toward customer service, he said. But one high-profile addition could come around Thanksgiving, when Gural expects to open a new 155,000-square-foot grandstand. With the $85 million facility being significantly smaller and more modern than the current grandstand, he hopes it will energize the track’s clientele.

“It’s the right size for today’s business model,” in which a majority of customers bet on the Internet, at another racetrack or at an off-track wagering parlor, he said. He later added, “I kind of knew it would be a struggle until we got into the new building.”

Gural is also trying new tactics to help his own OTW parlor in Bayonne, which he said has been “a little disappointing” in terms of betting business since it opened in July. Aside from continuing to shuttle customers from Staten Island, N.Y., the firm is also considering bringing in customers from Chinatown, in Manhattan, and simulcasting races from Hong Kong. He noted that Chinatown once had the busiest site in New York City’s now-defunct OTW system

“We’ve got a lot of different ideas to kick around,” Gural said.

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