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Driven By Loyalty?

Feature Story - The Meadowlands

When Jeff Gural, owner of the Meadowlands, spoke out, questioning the loyalty of drivers at his racetrack, many in the industry took notice. Are harness drivers obligated to stay loyal to a racetrack, or can they simply follow the money? Trot asked some of the top reinsmen in the game where their loyalty starts and ends.

Story by Debbie Little

IN A TIME WHEN PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES CHANGE teams as often as underwear are harness drivers different? No, and why should they be? Unlike their MLB and NBA counterparts, harness drivers have no contracts and therefore no financial guarantees.

The thing that keeps drivers at the same track for any extended period of time is the same thing that keeps every other person at their job: money.

So why is racetrack loyalty currently a hot-button issue? Because some drivers are choosing to leave the Meadowlands despite Jeff Gural’s efforts to get them to stay.

“Last year Yannick (Gingras) and (George) Brennan left to drive at Yonkers. I met with all the drivers and asked them to support my effort to turn things around which would certainly benefit them. Yannick thought it over and decided to come back while Brennan decided driving for Lou Pena and others at Yonkers was better for him. Had the other drivers made the same decision, there would be no Meadowlands,” said Gural.

In January, Brian Sears chose to race full-time at Yonkers rather than split his time at three tracks (Yonkers, Meadowlands and Harrah’s Philadelphia) like he did last year. Sears said his decision, just like every other driver, is “all about survival. It’s about economics. You have to go where you can survive. Where you can make a living.”

Gingras doesn’t think anyone should second-guess the choices of Brennan or Sears or himself, for that matter.

“What changed my mind is I want to drive good horses. Brian is in a different situation in his career than I am. He’ll still gets top drives without being around every day, but for me I’m still young and I need to be at the Meadowlands to get those stakes drives and at the end of the day, that was the decision for me,” Gingras said.

“I think it’s unfortunate that it’s gathering that much attention because there are plenty of capable drivers that are going to take their spot and it’s giving somebody else a chance. They’re not leaving the Meadowlands because they don’t like the Meadowlands. It’s not like that. It’s nothing personal. I wish they were there. I want to race against the best drivers in the world. That’s the reason I came to the Meadowlands,” he added.

In addition to Gingras, young up-and-coming drivers like Joe Bongiorno, Simon Allard and Corey Callahan are trying their hand at becoming the next big thing at the Big M.

“[Brennan and Sears] are two of the top drivers in the country and they have been for years now so with those guys out of the picture it opens up a lot of drives and makes things a lot easier for the rest of us. You can’t just show up in the summer and hope you get a top stakes horse so I’m going up there now and doing the legwork to hopefully prepare for a good summer,” Callahan said.

Callahan, who drives regularly at Dover Downs, is giving up his Saturdays in Delaware and will drive both Friday and Saturday nights at the Meadowlands to show his support for the track.

“Basically, [Jeff’s] kind of taken this all upon himself to keep the Meadowlands alive and to really keep harness racing alive so the fact that he requests people to be there to put on a good product, I don’t think that that’s something unheard of,” Callahan said.

“I know that Jeff really likes harness racing and he wants to see it survive, but he’s also a very, very smart businessman and I don’t think he would have taken on a project like this not thinking there might be a good chance the Meadowlands could end up being that superstar racino,” he added.

But with limited years to maximize their financial intake, athletes don’t always have the luxury to wait and see what may happen down the road, even if it could eventually be a big payday.

For Jody Jamieson, the future may be even less certain because of the pending April 1 deadline for the cancellation of Ontario’s Slots-At-Racetracks Program.

“I don’t think the loyalty issue goes beyond how much can I make on this night, and as short-sighted as that is, you look at some of the great drivers in the past and see how long their careers lasted. Truthfully, I’m afraid my career’s not going to last that long just by looking at the greats. Look at (Buddy) Gilmour [or] (Bill) O’Donnell. O’Donnell has this famous quip. He likes to say that if there was a great horse that raced in the 80s, he drove it. And that’s as far as that went. He didn’t drive any great horses in the 2000s, or even the late 90s, for that matter. Will that hold true for Jody Jamieson? I don’t know. So loyalty is a tough issue,” Jamieson said.

“I love the fact that Jeff Gural wants the best drivers at his track, but it’s very difficult for those best drivers to say, ‘I’m going to stay at the Meadowlands and make less money’, when by the time things turn around at the Meadowlands, and hopefully they do soon, they might be obsolete by then. I think that’s the worry,” he added.

Jamieson said things would have to go really wrong for him to consider racing regularly outside Ontario, but unlike the Meadowlands, he isn’t sure if local track management cares where he races.

“I’m not sure if Woodbine cares if I’m there. Maybe they do and maybe I’ve grossly underestimated the situation. But I’m not 100% sure they care whether I’m there or not,” he said.

While there is currently no threat of the Meadowlands closing its doors, the alternate gaming that its neighboring states have may still be far down the road since New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is currently opposed to anything that could hurt Atlantic City casino interests.

“A healthy Meadowlands can do a lot of good for the whole sport in general. I feel the same way about Woodbine. If these racetracks go down, I think the business might go down,” Gingras said.

“Me being at the Meadowlands, does it make a difference? I personally don’t think it makes a difference. I think people bet it because it’s a 10-horse field, because there are big pools. I don’t think they bet Yannick Gingras or Brian Sears or George Brennan. But at the end of the day, if that’s what they do believe, the least I can do for Jeff is give him that, but I don’t agree with that. Maybe he’s right, I don’t know,” Gingras added.

John Campbell has driven most of his career at the Meadowlands and says that drivers have always gone where the best money is.

“Somebody’s going to fill the void. When Brian came here, he certainly wasn’t known like he is now, so basically he earned that following so now somebody else is going to have the opportunity to jump in and do the same thing Brian did,” Campbell said.

“I certainly understand Jeff’s position. He’s trying to maximize wagering dollars and we bet the most by far of any track in North America. It’s not even close and he’s wanting to make sure that his show is the best it could possibly be. I understand both positions [but] I don’t think there’s an optimum solution. It’s about dollars for Jeff, it’s about dollars for Brian. They both want to maximize dollars, they just don’t want to do it at the same track,” he added.

And for Gural, the bottom line seems to be that he will put his money where his mouth is, continuing to put forth the best product possible and hoping for a day when he can fairly compete with the slots-rich tracks in New York and Pennsylvania.

“In general, I think there is very little loyalty and people do what is best for them financially, which hurts because I am putting so much time, effort and money into this, but hopefully, someday I will get slots and I can pick and choose who races here. That day can’t come soon enough, but in the meantime, I will do the best I can,” Gural said.

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