Profile: He Hopes to Put NJ’s Racing and Gambling Industries Back On Track
Self-described ‘horse guy’ and ‘numbers guy’ has grand vision for Meadowlands – and says casino there would also benefit Atlantic City
Name: Jeffrey R. Gural
Family: Married for 50 years, he has three children and six grandchildren. All of his family remains in the metro area, except for a granddaughter attending college in South Carolina. Home is Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Title: Chairman of Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, a real estate firm with more than 350 offices worldwide, which he has led with a partner since 1978.
Gural is also chairman of American Racing and Entertainment, which runs two standardbred horse-racing tracks with slot machines (“racinos”) in upstate New York, and operates the Meadowlands Racetrack at the East Rutherford Sports Complex. He also owns horse-breeding farms in upstate New York and Pennsylvania.
Growing up trackside: Gural’s connection to “the sport of kings” dates back to his childhood in suburban Long Island.
“I’ve had a love affair with harness racing since I was growing up in Woodmere,” he said.
Nearby was Roosevelt Raceway, a half-mile track that operated from 1940 through 1988.
“When I was a kid, harness racing was really popular and me and my friends would go on the weekends.”
The sport held several attractions for the savvy youngster.
“I’m a horse guy,” Gural said. “I’m also a numbers guy.” He became fascinated with handicapping, among other aspects, and, well, “once you’re hooked, you’re hooked.”
In the news: Gural’s public profile expanded greatly last month when he joined with Hard Rock Casino’s chief executive Jim Allen to officially announce plans to develop a world-class casino complex at the Meadowlands Racetrack.
Gural has pledged more than half the gambling revenue to state coffers -- estimated to reach $500 million annually -- to support various social programs, as well as the state’s struggling horse-racing industry. The Hard Rock team also promised as much as $100 million to help long-suffering Atlantic City, which lost four of its dozen casinos in the past year.
Several hurdles remain before their plan can advance. State legislators need to agree on how and where to expand casino gaming. Voters must approve a change to the state’s constitution, which now limits gambling to within Atlantic City.
And Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, who controls the flow of legislation, confirmed on Tuesday to the Associated Press that this process will remain on hold until next year. Sweeney said he wants time for a public debate on the issue and has claimed, in the past, that 2016 – when voter turnout will be boosted by the presidential election – would offer supporters a better shot.
New to New Jersey: Gural and his Newmark partners own several properties in the Garden State and the firm has an office in the Meadowlands area, but he had little experience with the Garden State’s political infrastructure before taking over the track. As a committed Democrat, he has raised money for – and gotten to know -- New Jersey’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Robert Menendez and Corey Booker, but Gural described his relationship with elected officials in the Meadowlands and Trenton as “absolutely none.”
However, when he heard the historic Meadowlands Racetrack, a premiere site for harness racing that dates to 1976, could be on its last lap, he wanted to do get involved.
“When the governor announced he was going to close the Meadowlands (Racetrack),” Gural said, “at the last minute I was able to reach out to someone in his office and I offered to see if they would be willing to lease me the facility instead of close it.”
Gural struck what some have called a sweetheart deal, but not without costs on his part. In December 2011 he signed a 30-year lease with the state to operate the racetrack; the annual payment of $1 rises to $500,000 after the first five years.
He is also guaranteed the first shot at a casino license, should gaming become legal in the Meadowlands. Gural invested close to $100 million in renovations over his first 18 months at the track, including building an entirely new grandstand with a swanky rooftop lounge that has been a draw for younger crowds.
Despite all the upgrades, Gural said his harness-racing business is still struggling. The problem is industry-wide; sports fans have migrated to other pastimes and breeding farms are losing space to developers.
Gural said races now run several nights a week at the mile-long Meadowlands track, but often with “short fields” – seven horses instead of 10, for example. With fewer horses, the volume and size of bets decline and revenue dwindles.
“The biggest problem I have is that harness racing is subsidized heavily in New York and Pennsylvania,” he explained, while prize money is much smaller in New Jersey without a state contribution to the purse.
“They’ve chosen correctly to support this” industry, Gural said, adding that the racing business is following the money.
Looking to Atlantic City: Horse racing in New Jersey has long had a close, complex, almost parasitic relationship with Atlantic City’s casino industry, which once helped support the state’s struggling equine industry.
In addition to watching the gaming competition at casinos and racetracks in New York, Pennsylvania and other regional states, Gural has seen one shorefront casino after another closed in Atlantic City. Instead of being siphoned off by neighboring states, he believes this revenue could help New Jersey’s racing industry, including his piece in the Meadowlands.
When Gural and Allen announced their plans to develop the casino facility in the Meadowlands – with gaming of all kinds, multiple entertainment options, high-end shopping and, they hope, eventually a hotel – they both stressed it was not a battle between south and north Jersey, but a pitch to reclaim business lost to other states.
“We need to bring back the people in northern New Jersey who now drive across the (George Washington) Bridge,” to casinos upstate, “or out Route 78 to Bethlehem,” where other gaming options beckon, Gural said – conceding that his “racinos” in New York may suffer in the process.
A long race: “It’s discouraging, really discouraging,” Gural said of Sen. President Sweeney’s reluctance to put the question on the November ballot this year. “Personally, I think it would be better this year, but it’s their decision, (but they’ve promised us they’ll put it on the ballot next year.”
Gural and Allen have offered to spend $10 million to $20 million to campaign for the measure, to make sure voters understand that their proposal involves fa r more than just slot machines at the racetrack.
The facility has the ideal location to draw customers from the region and world, given its proximity to international airports, they said.
“The most important thing is to not go on the ballot and lose,” Gural added. “Hopefully we’ll be able to win next year.”