"We stress courtesy and cleanliness," says Werblin. "That's why we hire a lot of college kids, have people sweeping, cleaning up all the time. It's the old Disney trick. If you treat your fans like ladies and gentlemen—and not sneer at them like the ticket seller in New York does—they'll act that way, have a good time and want to come back."
When they leave the track, in short, the old showman wants his audiences humming the results of the last race. In a very real sense the Meadowlands is Werblin's Little Theater off Times Square, and he treats it as if it were a Great White Way unto itself. Along with the clam bar and the ice-cream parlor, the riot of flags and the sound system blaring The Meadowlands Theme, there is a huge computerized video matrix board at the track, which comes on like a chorus line. It belts out messages in letters as high as a horse (HERE THEY...COME!), telecasts each race live on closed circuit and tunes in NBA games, boxing matches and the like in between. "It's show business," says Werblin. "We're selling entertainment. If we put on a better show, we'll get the customers."
They have. When harness racing opened at the Meadowlands last September, 42,133 bettors stormed the turnstiles and another 10,000 came over the wall. The rush has been on ever since. Average nightly attendance, originally projected at 12,000, was 17,213 during the 283-day season; the average handle, projected at $1.4 million, was nearly $1.8 million.
Says Racing Director Robert Quigley, "We're really grinding out the money."
And wearing down the competition. At Yonkers Raceway, 17 miles northeast of Times Square on the New York side of the Hudson, business fell off by 30%. The area's other major harness track, Long Island's Roosevelt Raceway, 27 miles east of New York City, felt the same crunch during its season: its attendance dropped 28%.
And now, with his 100-night thoroughbred meeting, Werblin is taking on New York's flat tracks. As uncouth as it may seem to traditionalists, the advantages of night thoroughbred racing are predicated on such a profoundly sensible equation—more available customers plus less road traffic equals better business—that the New York Racing Association, which operates Aqueduct and Belmont Park in the New York City area, is as skittish as a filly around a fire engine.
Surveying his impact on New York racing, Werblin advises calm. "We've not established our beautiful edifice to knock anyone out of business," he says, none too convincingly. "We're not competitive, we're compatible. You're always much better off with two theaters on the block."
As the owner of Elberon Farm, a racing stable on the Jersey Shore that has produced big stakes winners like Silent Screen and Process Shot, and—before he became involved with the Meadowlands project—a part owner of Monmouth Park racetrack, Werblin is confident that his fellow horsemen will have no trouble adapting to the Meadowlands late show. "Once they discover that they no longer have to get up at 6 a.m. to see their horses work out," he says, "they'll come around."
Jack Krumpe, who resigned as NYRA president to become executive director of the Meadowlands, is certain of it. "Some people say that a horse was not meant to run at night," he says. "I don't know what Paul Revere would say about that, but we believe differently. The truth is, this track is a natural nighttime operation. By day, you overlook warehouses. But at night the place comes alive. The lights, the Manhattan skyline, the colors—it's an exciting place to be."
Another benefit of running at night is that the Meadowlands will be able to attract the top jockeys who work the day shift in New York. Krumpe anticipates that many will commute by helicopter, but what he hopes will really race their rotors is the purse structure—perhaps $100,000 an evening. Krumpe hopes for a nightly average of 19,000 bettors wagering $2 million, placing the Meadowlands among the nation's top 10 thoroughbred tracks in its first season. "From there," he says, "we accelerate." Or as Werblin likes to say, "Anything is possible in the heart of the megalopolis."