AS THE MEADOWLANDS GOES
SO GOES NEW JERSEY RACING
Hey you had to be there to fully appreciate the magnitude!
It was Wednesday September 1, 1976, East Rutherford, New
Jersey the night of the grand opening. Public Relations
guru Sam Anzalone expected maybe 20-22,000 people might
attend but well over 40,000 showed up. The traffic in the
parking lot alone resembled Times Square on New Year’s.
The opening program read like a gala who’s who of
contemporary harness racing.
It was indeed a happening!
Many have wondered what would have happened had the Big
M opened for thoroughbreds instead of harness that fateful
As grandiose as the Big M may have seemed to us, it never
made any meaningful indentation to the New York Racing Association
firmly entrenched across the river thus one might imagine
the opening thoroughbred event would not have had the same
impact as did the harness.
Essentially, the opening runners card could and would never
have approximated the magnitude of the initial harness program.
Secondly, the mile racetrack was hardly unique and if nothing
else rather confining when compared the one and one half
mile oval over at Belmont Park. Moreover, with Belmont in
the midst of its annual Fall Championship program, the early
Meadowlands opening cards would have been pedestrian at
Had this occurred and The Meadowlands then switched to
Harness perhaps in January of 1977, they would have done
so with a lot less fanfare than when they opened in September
Even the legendary Joe DeFrank could not have put together
the kind of program in January commensurate with that of
September when Quick Baron won what was essentially a AA
pace in 1:57.2 and that was just the evening’s first
race. Later on would come more fireworks highlighted by
Rambling Willie’s 1:55 in the $50,000 Inaugural Free
Commensurately, Yonkers Raceway some 20 driving minutes
(without traffic) across the Hudson offered its typical
mundane Wednesday night menu of assorted B3 and C2 paces,
a couple of $18-22,000 claimers and perhaps a B2 trot or
Suddenly the megalopolis harness fan had a real choice.
One venue offered the same complacent routine while across
the river Joe DeFrank assembled the elite of the harness
world under one roof for the same $2 admission charge, And
the mile track arena was something never before seen by
Mr. Megalopolis unless one had actually ventured down to
Lexington or perhaps out to Hollywood Park.
Imagine Nickwampus Leroy and Myakka Prince with sufficient
stretch to launch their furious last quarter bids and suddenly
trapped third on the rail was not such a death seat as there
was ample room to get out.
That year, Oil Burner was a 3-year-old and a pair of soon
to be household words named B G’s Bunny and Escort
were age two. Ultimately they would propel the New Jersey
Sires Stakes program into similar stratospheric levels previously
reserved for New York State-and its resident super sire
Most Happy Fella. To that point, New York had pioneered
the concept of producing legitimate Grand Circuit performers
still protected within a sire’s stakes umbrella.
Oil Burner was a Most Happy Fella, B G.s Bunny an Albatross
and Escort was a Meadow Skipper from the immediate family
of Most Happy Fella. Suddenly the New Jersey Sire Stakes
which had been the excusive playground of Adios Ronnie and
Isle Of Wight reached major league status.
So too did the satellite farms in the Central Jersey area
reach stature previously unattainable when New Jersey racing
was just Freehold.
Perhaps the key factor here in making The Meadowlands THE
MEADOWLANDS was its uniqueness in accordance with the primary
business axiom of location, location and location. It was
not only the number one harness facility in the world but
situated right at the doorstep of mid Manhattan and within
easy driving range of the densely populated Northern New
Jersey bedroom suburbs. Moreover, it represented the first
time that Bergen, Hudson and Passaic racing fans could actually
get home for dinner then leisurely drive to the nearby harness
track instead of making that torturous schlep back across
the Hudson to either Yonkers or perish forbid distant Roosevelt.
No wonder the local populace embraced The Meadowlands as
However, the same did not happen for thoroughbred racing
but then again The Meadowlands thoroughbred program was
always in the shadows of the power plants across the river
whereas the incumbent harness tracks of Yonkers and Roosevelt
had grown stale and complacent and were easy prey for the
glamorous upstart in East Rutherford.
Basically the magic of the Meadowlands was the significance
of its product in a prime area literally starving for just
that kind of championship agenda.
It’s hard to fathom that how further diluting of
this once proud product with cheap conditionals and claimers
can ever lead to any significant renaissance.
It is however easy to share Assemblyman Manzo’s vision
that an on site Casino and slots at the racetrack will enable
The Meadowlands to retain its number one status.