Look, I love horse racing as much as anyone else. When I was a kid, my father used to take me to Monmouth Park and I loved hanging out at the paddock and watching the horses and jockeys get ready for two minutes of one of the most exciting sporting events you will ever see. I like the Thoroughbreds more than the Trotters, because harness racing seems to take forever.
But, it’s a funny thing when the government is so involved in financing an industry. Things become more complicated. Did you ever notice that on Sundays there are tons of commercials during an endless stream of NFL football games? The pre-game programming starts at about noon and the Sunday night game ends after midnight. That’s 12 straight hours of professional football filled with very expensive commercials supporting a very expensive industry including some ridiculously paid athletes. Why do I talk about the NFL in the context of horse racing in New Jersey? Simply put, the NFL is financially strong, viable, and vibrant and has absolutely no government subsidy keeping it afloat. The horse racing industry in New Jersey is a very different story.
When the Meadowlands Racetrack opened in 1976 it averaged nearly 17,000 people a day. Today, it is less than 3,000. According to official reports, the Meadowlands is estimated to lose over $11 million this year, and my favorite track, Monmouth, is a shell of what it used to be, even though it is still beautiful and is a great experience not just for gamblers, but for families looking for a great day out. Monmouth is estimated to lose over $6 million this year. Together, Monmouth and the Meadowlands get nearly $20 million in an annual state subsidy through the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. Lots of people are freaking out about an explosive set of recommendations produced by something called the Hanson Commission. This is a commission established by Governor Chris Christie to look at the horse racing industry in our state and is headed up by former Sports and Exposition Authority chairman Jon Hanson.
The commissions made some very bold and controversial recommendations. Specifically, they’ve basically advocated that virtually all horse racing be moved from the Meadowlands and centered down at Monmouth. It calls for the reconfiguring of Monmouth to allow for not only the Thoroughbreds, but also harness racing. It also dramatically reduces the number of racing days.
Further, it advocates that ultimately Monmouth should be privately run and not under the purview of a quasi government agency like the Sports Authority. The horse racing industry has gone bonkers over these proposals saying that it will kill their industry and put a lot of people out of work. But here’s the problem. While no one wants to see anyone put out of work, the question needs to be asked as to how important horse racing is in the larger scheme of things. With all of our pressing problems, should it still be getting a $20 million state subsidy every year? We are basically talking about tax payer sponsored “welfare” to a sports industry that should be able to support itself if the marketplace wanted it. Could you see yourself, or more importantly your tax dollars, supporting the NFL? I couldn’t. I wouldn’t want a penny of my money paying for Tony Romo’s salary. At a time when state government is cutting back funding to public schools, property tax rebates are being slashed, support for community health clinics is being cut, and there is a good chance that there will be fewer cops and firemen to protect us due to a lack of funding, how can we justify using precious and very limited public dollars to support horse racing?
Here’s the deal. Even though I like horse racing, obviously there aren’t enough people willing and/or able to go to horse tracks on a regular basis to sustain the industry at its current level. It’s called supply and demand. It’s called capitalism. It’s called the marketplace. It’s what built America. Again, I don’t want to see people put out of work, and I don’t want to see an industry die, but if you give me the choice between my tax dollars going to support my kid’s favorite math teacher in a public school or a cop responding to my call in the middle of the night, I know where my vote goes.
People say they want smaller government. They say they want government to spend less. That’s easy to say, but to do it someone needs to make some hard, painful and unpopular choices. That’s exactly what we are seeing in the Hanson Commission’s report. I don’t agree with all of it, and it has to be seriously discussed and debated. But the basic premise that state government is facing an $11 billion budget gap—again—and can’t fund everything is a no brainer. To those who say the state should keep subsidizing the horse racing industry, my question is, what would you cut in order to make that happen?
Finally, if the state is financing horse racing, why not fund local camera shops because digital technology is destroying that industry? Where do we draw the line? I say it is here with horse racing. What do you say?