HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — The Atlantic City Race Course had not seen a day like Sunday in 20 years. Cars streamed into the facility behind the Hamilton Mall early for the six-race meet.
Families treated it like the perfect afternoon outing — buying hot dogs and sodas and watching the horses run on the pristine turf track.
Patrons couldn’t even see the grandstand floor, and betting lines were 25 people deep.
Nearly 10,000 people attended the fourth day of the track’s six-day live meet. The official attendance of 9,822 set a 20-year record.
“It actually brought tears to my eyes,” said Maureen Bugdon, president of ACRC. “It was just the perfect day. We have a fanbase that is just so supportive.”
Days like Sunday give Bugdon and the track’s owners, Greenwood Racing, a renewed feeling that one day the facility will be able to have more than just the six live dates required by the state to run year-round simulcasting and off-track betting.
ACRC is open for simulcasting every day except Christmas. This year’s live meet started April 28 and ended Tuesday.
The dream is to have two live racing seasons, one in the spring and one in the fall to bookend Monmouth Park’s turf season, which begins May 14 this year. Monmouth Park is scheduled to have 132 racing dates this year, with Nov. 17 as the last day of racing.
ACRC averaged 5,374 people over its six days, which is slightly down from last year’s number of 5,803, but still a jump from 2009 when the track averaged 4,279. The track was hurt by poor weather on opening day, when only 2,373 came out.
William Hudgins is a writer for American Turf Monthly, one of the top horse racing magazines in the country. The Somers Point native and Millville resident has been handicapping turf races since the 1980s, and he thinks having one season in the fall and one in the spring would be great for ACRC — which he calls one of the top five turf courses in the country.
Hudgins focused on ACRC races for the past two months. He handicapped every race and received permission from the track to set up a tent in the paddock to speak to bettors and answer questions.
“Idealistically, this meet is set right before Monmouth Park and it’s perfectly placed right now,” Hudgins said. “In an ideal world, I would like to see Atlantic City run two weeks before Monmouth Park opens and two weeks after it closes. I think it would be great for the industry.”
But Bugdon said adding more live dates is probably years away. The track has to build bigger purses to add more races. Most of the purses during this year’s meet ranged from $15,000 to $25,000, with a high of more than $50,000 for the Tony Gatto Dream Big Stakes on Tuesday.
In comparison, Monmouth Park in 2010, boosted by $20 million from New Jersey casinos, opened with $75,000 and $80,000 purses.
ACRC, the smallest of the four tracks in the state, is the only self-sustaining one that does not receive a state subsidy to supplement purses.
The purses come from the handle (the total amount of money bet) the race course takes in from simulcasting throughout the year, Bugdon said. Right now, ACRC can only deal with six days offering a total of 36 races. However, the track was able to increase the total number of races by two this year by adding one on Monday and Tuesday.
“We’re taking baby steps,” Bugdon said. “It would be my pleasure to put on 10 days now and 10 days in the fall if we could get there.”
But despite those hurdles, Bugdon said she had to turn away horses this year because the track had filled all of its race entries.
The turf track has a good reputation on the East Coast and trainers want their animals to run at ACRC.
Trainer Michael Aro said his horse, Eversoul, should have a good season this year after winning Monday’s race, because the ACRC course is a great barometer for performance.
Before the six-day meet, Aro said he was not even sure if Eversoul was going to have the chance to run.
“You have to be patient because you don’t know if you have a spot right away. It’s the luck of the draw,” Aro said. “There are a lot of good horses that run over here. If I have a good horse, I like to try him on this turf because you get a true read on them.”
As Atlantic City Race Course continues to build off its recent success, officials hope to bring the facility closer to what it used to be.
Grace Kelly’s father, John, used to be one of the track owners. She used to roam the building with her children. Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope were original stockholders.
More than 28,000 fans packed the track in 1946 for its inaugural race.
Perhaps the race track will never get back to those glory days, but racing enthusiasts hope there are still plenty of good days ahead.
“Look at how much fun the kids are having,” said Betsy Jordan, 35, of Egg Harbor Township, as she pointed to her two young daughters galloping through the paddock as they pretended to be race horses.
“This is the kind of place where you like to bring the family,” she said. “It’s not about the betting. It’s about being around the horses and the excitement and seeing something you don’t get to see every day.”
Contact Susan Lulgjuraj:
Atlantic City Race Course statistics
Year Race Days Attendance On-Track Handle
1999 5 8,415 $525,865
2000 6 12,859 $863,008
2001 10 18,929 $992,240
2002 1 1,925 $170,686
2003 4 4,396 $335,350
2004 4 11,639 $458,868
2005 4 8,483 $412,528
2006 4 16,344 $698,856
2007 4 17,239 $731,283
2008 6 25,485 $807,932
2009 6 25,673 $771,243
2010 6 34,818 $957,734
2011 6 32,245 N/A
Source: Atlantic City Race Course