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New Meadowlands track starts Saturday

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) - With the new, $88-million Meadowlands Racetrack scheduled to open for live racing on Saturday, Jeff Gural understandably has a case of the jitters.

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Gural, the managing partner of Meadowlands Racing and Entertainment, and fellow investors are wagering that the smaller building loaded with creature comforts for harness-racing fans and bettors will be able to turn a profit in an industry that has fallen on hard times.

The new Meadowlands is about a third of the size of the old one, which is located on the other side of the one-mile oval racing surface. Its grandstand can seat 2,200, and the clubhouse, simulcasting area, bars, upscale restaurant, sky boxes, corporate meeting rooms and outdoor terraces can hold 10,000. An outdoor facility is expected to be finished next year will expand capacity to about 20,000 for major events such as the Hambletonian in August.

The simulcasting part of the building opened Monday.

''I am very excited because I am dying to see what feedback we get, and how it is going to play out,'' Gural said late Wednesday afternoon. ''You put all this time, effort and energy into it, but the reality is is that it is like a Broadway play or a movie. You have to wait until the reviews are in.''

The key number to determine whether the new track is succeeding will be the amount of money bet on the live cards at the track each night. Gural is hoping to see a 20 percent increase in that handle over last year.

In dollars, Gural said success would be nightly wagering of around $300,000 to $400,000. A good night would be $500,000 wagered on a card.

Gural, who also owns Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs harness track in upstate New York, has built this one with all the things that he likes. There are high-definition televisions and seating at almost every turn. There are areas for every type of bettor, from the average $2 guy to those seeking the privacy of an intimate carpeted room. The food is very important, Gural said, who has been picky selecting his vendors. Admission and parking are free.

The key though will be drawing patrons, which has been hard in this industry.

When the Meadowlands opened in 1976, the average crowds were in the 18,000 range on week nights and up to 25,000 on weekends. The crowds have dwindled to a couple of thousand a night.

''I have been going to the racetrack all my life,'' Gural said. ''I know what I like and what I don't like. We still have some things we want to add, but I think people want to be in a crowded place as opposed to an empty one. I told people before, if we just get the same number of people we used to have it will look crowded. Hopefully, we do better than that. I think just the fact it's the right size is going to make a big difference. Most racetracks are the wrong size because the world has changed from what it used to be in horse racing.''

The track, which was built in the stable area of the old Meadowlands, will operate on weekends for the next month. It expands to three days a week in January. It will have 81 days of harness racing and 10 days of thoroughbred racing this year. Gural said the facility hopes to host corporate events and parties on days off. It has the right to stage concerts on days they are not being held at the Meadowlands sports complex.

If New Jersey eventually allows casinos outside of Atlantic City, Gural said he erect a new casino building next to the new racetrack, so he could have both operations.

''This is a building where you can bring your wife and family,'' Gural said.

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