March 19, 2007


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 September evening.

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 best.

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 of ’76.

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 For All.

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 two.

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 they did.

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.

Bob Marks



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