Harness racing may not have the cachet of Thoroughbred racing but the sport is making a major comeback in the form of a privately funded $88-million grandstand and entertainment hub at the Meadowlands.
The new Meadowlands Racetrack grandstand opened on November 23rd with 2,200 seats throughout three levels, and standing room for an easy ten thousand more in a variety of betting machine and TV-laden spaces, plus a 2.5-acre Outfield scheduled to open in the spring (with a former master from Texas’ lauded The Salt Lick helming the barbeque).
That may sound huge but it’s actually one-third the size of the 1976 original, still standing across the 1-mile oval track awaiting Super Bowl duties. The Big M was once the biggest deal in the sport whose true heyday was two centuries ago (county fairs! You know you’ve seen it on Little House on the Prairie). In recently years, as fans waned and slot machines never showed (an ongoing conversation), entire sections were closed regularly so open areas seemed less empty. There’s no fun in an empty space. The strategy – more intimacy, more bright fun colors, more upscale food and drink = more people, especially the young – already seems to be working. Some 15,000 were there night one; 3,000 is the expected average crowd.
Live racing – this means Standardbred horses pulling a sulky (two-wheeled cart) steered by a driver, at more than 30 mph (thoroughbreds can exceed 40 mph) – is weekends only through August. But the bars and restaurants will be open seven nights. And they’re not just for the suburban OTB set.