Racetrack magnate Jeff Gural hates dishonesty. Once you know that, it’s easy to understand why the man who spent more than $100 million to build a new grandstand at the Meadowlands Racetrack in New Jersey said he was “really angry” with Standardbred trainer Corey Johnson.
Both horses Johnson raced in the Breeders Crown at the Meadowlands in November of 2014 — including Traceur Hanover, the winner of the 2-year-old colt pace — later tested positive for cobalt. The lab in Hong Kong Gural personally employed to do the testing reported each horse had five times the threshold level of cobalt typically found in a horse’s system.
Gural, 72, also was irked that the New Jersey Racing Commission had allowed Johnson to race in the Breeders Crown in the first place. The Ontario Racing Commission suspended the trainer on the Monday before the Crown finals after another horse he trained received a positive test for elevated total carbon dioxide (TC02) levels at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto.
“The guy embarrassed the sport,” said Gural, who maintains a sizeable list of trainers banned from racing at the Meadowlands as well as the two smaller harness tracks he also owns in upstate New York — Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs.
Yet, Gural couldn’t bar Johnson’s Crown entries because the Breeders Crown is operated by the Hambletonian Society, which defers to the sport’s state and provincial regulators to determine a participant’s eligibility. The New Jersey Racing Commission allowed Johnson to race because the trainer had not had a hearing in Ontario prior to the Crown finals.
After the cobalt positive, Gural not only banned Johnson from racing at his tracks, he also banned entries from Quebec-based owner Richard Berthiaume, the owner of both of Johnson’s Breeders Crown entries.
“We’ve now made changes to our rules so that can never happen again,” Gural said, explaining the language in those rules is so broad that the track will now be able to reject entries for all stakes races at his tracks, even those operated by outside groups.
The Breeders Crown will return to the Meadowlands in 2016.
Gural is puzzled why people in horse racing call him a polarizing figure.
“I say to myself, ‘Let’s see, I stand for integrity, I built a brand new building, I try to market it, I have good food,’” Gural said. “‘What am I doing that should be polarizing?’”
The Meadowlands, which opened its new grandstand in November of 2013, is harness racing’s flagship track. The East Rutherford plant — located just a short hop over the Hudson River from midtown Manhattan and adjacent to MetLife Stadium, the home of the NFL’s New York Giants and Jets — also conducts a short Thoroughbred turf meet in the fall. Gural has said that more Thoroughbred dates at the Meadowlands would be likely if a casino comes to the track.
Gural, a noted philanthropist, is the chairman of Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, a global real estate advisory firm and one of the largest property managers in New York City. Lately, Gural said he spends more time managing his racetracks than his real estate interests. He leased the Meadowlands from the state of New Jersey in 2011, quickly broke ground on the new grandstand, and ever since has been trying to change the culture of the sport he fell in love with as a kid growing up on Long Island.
As a teenager, Gural regularly went to the races at Belmont Park, Aqueduct, and Roosevelt Raceway, the former Standardbred palace that closed in 1988.
The day he got his driver’s license, Gural loaded seven friends into a 1955 Chrysler and went to Roosevelt. The story goes that the group immediately lost most of their money, but had just enough left to buy a parting pretzel that from that night on became known as the eat-your-heart-out pretzel.
“They’d let you in for the last two races for free, if you didn’t want to pay the $2. Someone would give you a program for free,” Gural said. “So, we were guys that were going to the track with $10. We saved the $2 to get in, the $2 to park, and we saved the $2 for a program. So, to us, by going for just two races, we were $6 ahead. I would bet a $4 combo. If I won, I bet a $10 combo in the last race and we’d go home. We would have nothing but fun. We would have a ball. We’d sit in the car, bulls----, and eat our hearts out on a pretzel.”
Gural later attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. “One year I had to go to summer school and I went to Saratoga pretty much every afternoon. My parents wanted to know why I didn’t have any money and why they had to keep sending me money,” Gural said, laughing.
Though Gural said he’s more of a Standardbred guy — his Allerage Farms breeds Standardbreds in New York and Pennsylvania — he has dabbled in Thoroughbred ownership despite his first experience with the runners being a bad one.
“I was partners with some people and they had Rick Dutrow as a trainer. When he got a positive I told them I couldn’t have Rick Dutrow as a trainer. They bought me out right away. They were very nice,” Gural said.
A few years ago, Gural bought two Thoroughbred yearlings. One was claimed from him. The other, a Bernstein filly Gural bought for $160,000, is being trained by Bobby Ribaudo and has yet to race.
Gural goes to Saratoga every year, but spends most of his time in the harness game and thinking of ways to try to improve the sport. He developed rules to keep successful Standardbreds on the track longer by excluding stakes entries of offspring sired by stallions that were younger than five at the time of mating – a rule he employs at all three of his own facilities — and he has tried to convince the sport to put more money into marketing and television coverage. He purposely built a smaller grandstand at the Meadowlands aimed at attracting a younger clientele and featuring a dance club and spectacular rooftop terraces with views of the Manhattan skyline.
“Even though we’re not crowded, it looks a little crowded,” Gural said of the smaller grandstand. “I’m surprised, really, that none of the Thoroughbred people have come to the Meadowlands to look at it, because if there’s a future for horse racing, it’s the Meadowlands. I really think I’ve built the racetrack of the future at the Meadowlands. I’ve invited the people at NYRA to come out, but they never have. I invite them again. I really believe I built the racetrack of the future.”
Integrity may be Gural’s biggest focus. He said he spends about $150,000 annually on integrity initiatives.
“I didn’t spend $100 million to provide a place where the dishonest can earn a living,” he said. “I’m just honest. That’s just the way I conduct myself. Everybody knows it and it’s worked for me.”
Dave Briggs recently talked with Jeff Gural about the integrity initiatives in place at his three racetracks.
Specific to the horse racing business, what is your definition of integrity?
“My definition of integrity would be using trainers that have a clean record. I think that owners who act surprised when something goes wrong, that’s nonsense. We are all know there are trainers out there that have never had a positive in 20, 30 years. There’s a reason why they’ve never had a positive. My definition of integrity from an owner’s perspective is using a trainer that has a clean record.”
How does integrity enter into how you operate your three racetracks?
“My racetrack perspective is I want the people racing at my tracks, for the most part, to have a clean record. Obviously, there’s always going to be people I suspect because they win a lot of races. All I can do is continue to test their horses and make sure that they’re not doing anything wrong. One thing that’s troubling about our business is it’s one of the few businesses that I know of where if you’re successful the implication is that you’re cheating. I don’t even know why anyone would want to be a trainer in today’s environment, to be honest with you. But, for the most part, in the harness game, you know who the bad guys are and I try to exclude them. Obviously, I haven’t excluded all the bad guys because typically the problem you have is the people that are using drugs are one step ahead of the testing labs.”
Why is integrity so important to you?
“For two reasons: 1. Putting a chemical into a horse without even knowing what the side effects are, it’s cruel. When you use drugs on a human being, before you can use those drug there’s all sorts of testing and trials. I think the guys using drugs on horses, a lot of the time it is just trial and error and they have no idea what the side effects are and horses die every now and then. 2. I don’t know how you can expect honest people to want to be part of your business and buy horses if they’re concerned that they’re not competing on a level playing field. The one thing you don’t want to do is discourage honest people from buying horses because we need horses. For the most part, those people lose money, especially buying yearlings. We can’t afford to discourage all the honest people from participating in the business. I think in harness racing we’ve done that to a large degree. I think we’ve driven a lot of honest people out of the game.
“From a standpoint of your customers, the people betting on your product, they want to know that they’re getting a fair shake. The one thing about drugs from a pari-mutuel standpoint is what if the guy doesn’t use the drugs one week and knows his horse is going to be 2-5 and he bets against the horse because he knows? If you’re going to have wagering on your sport, the perception has to be, in the public’s mind that everything is on the up and up, or as close to being on the up and up as possible. We have enough trouble trying to attract new customers as it is without having a perception that the game is less than honest.”
Is there a direct link between the integrity of your racing product and your bottom line?
“[Banning trainers] has helped us at the Meadowlands. Look at some of our competitors where people we’ve banned are racing. Look at their handle… There are other factors, but from what I’ve seen, our handle dwarfs our competitors where the drug guys are allowed to race. One would think it does help, obviously. You can always make the argument that handle begets handle because somebody wants to bet $1,000 and they know that if the horse is 1-5 at the Meadowlands the horse will go from 3-1 to 5-2, but, from what I can see, it’s helped us maintain our handle compared to our competitors.”
What have you heard from bettors with respect to your efforts on integrity?
“Nothing but, ‘Thank you.’ I don’t read the blogs, so I don’t know what they’re saying, but the feedback that I get from people who take the time to email me is all positive and I answer all the emails. If they say they saw something in a race they didn’t like, I’ll always watch the race again and get back to them.”
What do you hear from horse owners on the integrity front?
“I think some of them are happy and some of them aren’t. I think the people that are using the drug guys are bad guys. To me the most shocking indictment of the integrity issue in harness racing for me was the fact when we tell a trainer he can no longer race at our tracks that, with the exception of two people, I’ve never had one of his owners come along and ask why his horses can’t race there. I’ve never had anyone from another racetrack call and ask why that trainer can’t race there. So, those are two things that are shocking to me… You would think somebody has to call an owner and say, ‘Oh, by the way, from now on we can’t race at the Meadowlands anymore.’ You’d think the guy would want to know why. So, it leaves you to believe that they know why.”
Do you hear much on integrity directly from the participants?
“I hear a little bit from the trainers. The one thing that you hear a lot of, and it concerns me, is everybody’s using something. I hear that a lot and I don’t know what that means. The one thing that’s really a problem is the fact that you don’t get a lot of help from the industry in trying to track down the cheating guys. You don’t get people dropping a dime, as they used to say. There’s a lot of rumor out there, but you don’t get all that much reported.”
Why do you think that is?
“I think there’s something in human nature that says, ‘Don’t be a squealer.’ I think that’s just the way it is, even though it works against them. They are being cheated by these guys. They close their eyes and they say, ‘Look, it’s Jeff’s problem. Let him find the guy. I’m not going to say anything. If he finds them, he finds them.’ Clearly, this stuff couldn’t go on without people seeing what goes on.”
Does animal welfare and animal rights activism factor into your integrity protocol? Meaning, are you concerned there’s a direct link between animal rights activists and what it could do to you business?
“Absolutely. One of the issues we do have is this whipping issue, which is out there. I know the Thoroughbreds changed the kind of whip they use and we haven’t been able to find someone [in harness racing] who can make a whip that we can use that would be a better product. The option is to eliminate the one-handed whipping. I guess that’s probably where we’re headed, but when I watch the [harness] races from Woodbine [where whipping is restricted] it looks so awkward to me. By the way, all the drivers say whipping does nothing, but they can’t give it up. They all tell me the same thing.”
What measures have you taken at your tracks to improve the integrity of your product?
“The only thing that I’ve done that no one else has done is I have my own investigator. That’s it. Look, if you’re going to rely on the government to solve this problem it’s like any other situation. The government looks to not make waves and not spend a lot of money. If an investigator works for the government, then they don’t work on Sunday or at two o’clock in the morning. They’re not working because their boss told them, ‘I don’t want any overtime.’
“I remember when I first got involved I met with the State Police to see if they could be helpful. Interestingly enough, they said, ‘Jeff, you have more ability to catch these guys than we do because we need probable cause and you don’t. If somebody drives a trailer onto your property and you want them to open it up, you just ask them to and they have to do it. We can’t ask them to do it unless we have probable cause.’ So, the police are at a big disadvantage because under the laws we live under, for them to go into someone’s barn on a Sunday afternoon and snoop around, it’s not that easy. I think we’ve got a good system in place because, basically, in order to race at my tracks, you have to agree to allow our investigator to come there anytime he wants and draw blood with your veterinarian. We won’t draw blood because we don’t want someone saying, ‘You killed my horse.’ But, it’s really worked pretty well. When we did have a problem with one or two farms saying, ‘We’re not letting your investigator there.’ I just said, ‘Well, then anyone training there can’t race.’ That solved the problem overnight.
“Most of everything we do is out-of-competition testing. We’re constantly going to farms and training centers and taking blood. Then the other thing is sending it to labs that they’re not expecting you to send it to because the assumption is they know what [the states] will test for. I’ll give you an example: one year we had a flood at Tioga Downs and we had some stakes races planned that we had to cancel. We were fortunate enough to get Mohegan Sun to take the races. We had, I think, five out of the eight trainers in that race call us to say that they couldn’t race in Pennsylvania because the testing in Pennsylvania was different than the testing in New York and their horses were going to show up positive because the withdrawal times are different. Does that make any sense? Now I think we’re on the right track where they’re trying to standardize everything. I think that will be a big plus.”
You try to mix it up and send samples to different labs so people can’t figure out the system and what you’re testing?
“Yeah. The cobalt [in the Corey Johnson] case was really detected by the labs in Hong Kong.”
You try to use some out-of-country labs from time to time?
“Yeah, or even other in-state labs. If someone knows that the state of New York is going to test their horse after the race, he knows exactly what they’re testing for, so he’s not going to give that horse anything that you’re testing for. But if he doesn’t know where you’re sending the test, it’s better. The biggest thing is that I’m spending my own money. I’m not criticizing the state investigators, but they have a budget. I know, because I’ve been told, that the state doesn’t want to get sued, doesn’t want to have to spend money on lawyers and lawsuits. They don’t go to war with these guys. To me it’s personal. Luckily, the one lawsuit we had, we won. Winning that lawsuit [against trainer Lou Pena] changed everything. Had we lost that lawsuit, we’d be nowhere.”
Is it true your security staff has detained trainers on the way to the track and caught people doing something they shouldn’t be doing?
“Yeah, twice where they pulled off to the side of the road [to, allegedly, administer drugs]. We have a case now where we think we have a trainer who routinely, instead of pulling off to the side of the road, was shipping his horses from Delaware to a training center in New Jersey to administer illegal drugs. It’s tough. They’re always trying to be one step ahead. It’s human nature.
To race at your tracks, participants have to sign a document agreeing to out-of-competition testing. What else do they have to sign to be able to race at your tracks?
“Nothing really. We’ve got such broad language in there that it really protects us for just about anything we’re going to do. The criticism I get is, ‘You’re judge and jury.’ I try to be as fair as possible. It’s not that big a deal because they can race at these other tracks. Nobody seems to be losing any sleep over it.”
Are you testing for much more drugs than the states of New York and New Jersey currently test for now, or just taking the sample to different labs?
“We’re testing at different places and looking for whatever they think is performance-enhancing.”
What is your reaction to those who say horse racing has one of the most stringent drug testing protocols of any sport and, even then, only a small percentage of horses get positive tests?
“I think that’s a joke. I just think that’s a joke.”
“Basically, the trainers are ahead of the game. The veterinarian knows exactly what they’re testing for. Every once in awhile they’ll test for something they’ve never tested for and all of a sudden you’ll get 12 positives overnight and everybody is scratching their head… I use the Lance Armstrong argument. Lance Armstrong, to this day, has never tested positive. He denied using drugs for God knows how long. Then, one day he says, ‘Yeah, I used drugs all the time because that was the only way I could be competitive.’ They never caught him… I think the future is going to be keeping track of markings. If you take blood from a horse at two [years of age] and then at three the blood has changed, something’s wrong… It is scientifically impossible for your blood to change unless you’re doing something. I think that is the future.”
What would you like to see horse racing do to tackle the integrity problem?
“If the people in the industry really wanted to clean it up, they would. All you’ve got to do is take $100 from the winner of every race and use it to hire outside investigators. This isn’t hard. There’s a formula that would work in a heartbeat. I think there’s a lot of good people out there that really want to clean it up, but I’m not sure all the participants want to clean it up. Don’t rely on the government to clean it up. Rely on private industry to clean it up, because they’re going to clean it up. The way you do that is you do what I did — hire your own investigator, use labs you’re paying extra, and charge everybody $10 every time they start in a race and you’ll clean it up. You show up on Sundays at five in the morning instead of six in the morning and see what you find. It’s not hard at all.”
What have you done in terms of the integrity of the on-track product with respect to how the harness drivers race their horses?
“The constant criticism I got from my customers was, ‘In harness racing post position is very important.’ If you draw the 10 hole, it’s supposed to be a disadvantage, but if you know that if you leave you can tuck in fourth every time because someone is going to give you the courtesy of allowing you to do it because they know you’ll repay the favor, it makes the racing less exciting and easy to handicap. Unfortunately, I still haven’t won that battle, though it’s better than it was… Watching the Thoroughbreds, I think they put on a better product. In [harness racing], it’s rare that you see two horses battle it out from the start to the finish. In the Thoroughbred game you see it all the time.”
A New Jersey court upheld your right to use your private property rights to ban trainer Lou Pena from racing at the Meadowlands. What’s the broader impact of that case? Did it scare other people from challenging your right to ban people?
“Yeah, I think so. It used to be you’d see an automatic stay anytime anybody tried to do anything. Even the state could never do much. I think that case really affirmed it’s private property. Nobody bothers me anymore, basically.”
What are your thoughts on due process as it pertains to the horse racing business?
“The problem with due process in the horse racing business is you’re going in front of a judge who doesn’t know anything about the horse racing business. I think the proper thing would be for everyone to agree to some sort of panel of experts and they would decide. If you’re going to go in front of a judge who knows nothing about the sport and make the argument, ‘Your honor, my client can’t make a living. He’s entitled to due process’ and then it drags on for four years. In other sports, they seem to have a process that works where the union contract says something and then it goes to an arbitrator who is an expert in the field, not what we have. I think if everybody wanted to agree to select a list of arbitrators, I could live with that. I can’t live with someone going in front of a judge who knows nothing about horse racing and let him decide.”
What do you say to those that say you have no right to ban licensed participants from your tracks?
“It goes back to the private property argument. I do have a right. Most of the guys that we’ve banned in the last year or two have all tested positive for cobalt. It’s hard to catch someone using cobalt.”
If integrity is so crucial to horse racing’s future, why do you think, in many cases, other tracks and some of the governing bodies of the sport don’t go as far as you?
“They don’t want to spend the money. I’ve been told that by other tracks. They say, ‘We don’t want to risk getting sued and have to spend money on lawyers.’ Don’t forget, I won, but somebody might sue in New York and get a different decision. I think if the horsemen were sincere, they would voluntarily say, ‘Okay, we’re tired of listening to this. We’re going to create two super labs and we’re going to assess every horse that enters a race $40 to pay for it... They don’t really want that to happen. They like it just the way it is, I think.”
You’ve said the Thoroughbred industry has shown more interest in your integrity initiatives than the harness racing industry.
Why do you think that is the case?
“I think they are dealing at a higher level. I think the people running The Jockey Club are really dedicated to the sport. I don’t think we have that in harness. I know we don’t have it.”
Apart from integrity, what other measures have you taken to attract bettors, particularly the big bettors, besides giving rebates?
“I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I think I’ve really got to go back and try to duplicate what the casinos do. I think that’s one mistake we’ve made. Rebates are a part of it, but there are other things you can do. The biggest problem that I see that’s unique to us because of New Jersey, is the growth of the sport is all on the Internet, the phone, the iPad, and the computer. We don’t get our fair share of that revenue. Our growth has all been in the phone and Internet and we don’t own that in New Jersey. That’s really hurt us. There are things we should be doing that are a carbon copy of what the casinos do that we’ve never tried.”
Meaning comping the VIPs?
“Yes. Invite your 50 best customers to dinner and put them all in the same room where they have something in common and they can have cocktails and try to get them back. We’ve never done that. We just rebate. That’s it. We have a VIP room where we give you free food, but there’s more that could be done. I really think these handicapping contests could be a lot of fun and a way of rewarding your customers without them putting in $400 entry fees. We don’t ask the casino guy to put in a $400 entry. Maybe give away a car once in awhile, or give away a trip. The one thing that I’ve learned is word of mouth won’t save you if you have a bad product. When people go to the Meadowlands, the biggest disappointment to me is anyone who goes there is shocked by how nice it is, yet that hasn’t translated into filling it back up again.”
“The bottom line is: the product isn’t selling itself. Somebody said to me the other day, ‘Santa Anita is absolutely drop dead gorgeous.’ I’ve been told that, but during the week they get 3,000 people in a facility that holds 50,000. Whereas at Saratoga during the week, there’s 17,000 people because of their short season. For whatever reason, it’s cool to go to Saratoga. I’m not living in California, but I guess it’s not that cool to go to Santa Anita.”
Dave Briggs is the co-editor of Canadian Thoroughbred magazine and a freelance horse racing columnist and features writer. For 18 years, he was the editor of the harness racing trade publication The Canadian Sportsman.