When it opened last spring, Garden State Park proclaimed itself "the race track of the 21st century." The hype seemed justified. With a $100 million plant and a bold, enlightened management, Garden State figured to be an instant success.
But one year later, the Cherry Hill, N.J., track is still firmly rooted in the 20th century, suffering from the same modern-day economic ills that affect less ambitious operations in the Northeast.
Garden State's attendance and handle figures have run far below expectations; the quality of the day-to-day thoroughbred racing has been uninspiring. And that's the good news. Robert Brennan, the track president, conceded that the recently concluded harness meeting was "a financial disaster."
What happened to Brennan's grand dreams?
Perhaps Brennan erred in thinking that the Philadelphia area could generate enough business to justify the construction of a $100 million track that would offer some of the biggest purses in American racing.
"This is a tough location for a race track," said Dick Jerardi of the Philadelphia Daily News. "This is a big sports town. And the track is close enough to Atlantic City that people just whiz by it on the way to the casinos."
Without a large, established base of hard-core bettors, Garden State had to attract new fans -- and did a reasonably good job of it. But the newcomers didn't bet heavily, and the track finished its first thoroughbred season with an average nightly handle of $1.2 million. (Frank DeFrancis could boast that he bought Laurel for $16 million -- $84 million less than Brennan spent -- and achieved just about the same results.) Still, Garden State's management was upbeat and optimistic -- until its harness racing season got under way.
Brennan had envisioned Garden State as a thriving year-round operation, which would alternate harness and thoroughbred race meetings as the Meadowlands does. He hired as his general manager Bob Quigley, who had presided over the Meadowlands' rapid growth into the country's top harness operation. But at Garden State, the standardbred sport drew pathetic crowds, despite the track's rich and ambitious stakes schedule. "We learned," Brennan said, "that the Philadelphia market has been turned off over the last 10 years by the lowest possible quality of racing, compounded by the perception -- which from time to time became reality -- that the sport was crooked."
So when Garden State launched its second thoroughbred meeting last month, the atmosphere was a lot different from 1985. Purses had been cut, the number of employes had been cut, the quality of racing had dropped, expectations had dropped. But despite the problems, Brennan maintained his characteristic optimism.
"Our first thoroughbred season," he said, "was one of investment into the future. We made a commitment to overpay purses in order to establish the credibility that would be the key to our long-term success. We had a similar strategy at the standardbred meeting. We already have seen some positive, upbeat signs that these investments are paying dividends.
"Our goal was to attract a new base of racing fans. That's a concept to which everybody gives lip service, but we're doing it. This market can be built. I see a light at the end of the tunnel."