Most days at Atlantic City Race Course are relatively quiet this time of year.
People check out racing forms and place bets on races, which are simulcasted daily. But much of the Hamilton Township property is empty on a given day.
The atmosphere is a stark contrast to what racetrack officials and enthusiasts hope to see this spring.
ACRC will offer its customary six days of live races this spring. Races will be held from April 27-29 and then resume May 1-3.
Last season's turf festival attracted more than 32,000 spectators from all over the region. There were deep betting lines. Families brought their children to watch the horses. The fourth day of racing drew 9,822 people, the highest number in two decades.
ACRC president Maureen Bugdon anticipates similar numbers this year. The event runs right up to the Kentucky Derby, which is on May 4.
"There's a lot of racing excitement around that time in the thoroughbred world," Bugdon said Thursday.
As the course has done in recent years, Bugdon said ACRC will offer events for families who come out to watch the races. The racetrack also donates most of its food and beverage proceeds to local entities such as Oakcrest High School's Marching Ambassadors.
Tony Gatto has been a racebook manager at the track for four years. He has worked at ACRC off and on since he was a teenager.
Gatto expects the track to be incredibly busy that week. Live racing at ACRC draws a crowd that otherwise may not even be aware of the racetrack's existence.
"It gives us a lot of exposure," he said. "Some people don't even know this place is open year-round until they come out (for live races)."
Ray Prehart, 56, of Galloway Township, is an ACRC regular. Horse racing has been a hobby of his for decades. He used to watch live races at Monmouth Park, where he grew up.
Prehart said he goes to ACRC two or three times a week to watch simulcasts.
He attended last year's live races and intends to do so again this spring.
"The crowds have been pretty good," Prehart said. "People are itching for the chance to see live races."
The Atlantic City track is owned by Greenwood Racing, which also controls Parx Racing in Bensalem, Pa. Parx, which runs live races year-round, will not offer any live competition during Atlantic City's six-day meet. That could help boost attendance.
"We anticipate similar attendance (to last year). Our crowds have been growing for the last five years," Bugdon said.
Overall attendance has climbed steadily in the last decade. It dipped slightly last year from 2010 due to a day of poor weather.
Bugdon is hopeful to eventually expand the event to include more days. For now, that's out of the question.
The state's horse racing industry has been under fire recently as Gov. Chris Christie has taken steps to eliminate subsidies in an attempt to make horse racing self-sufficient. Atlantic City Race Course, the smallest of four tracks in the state, has not received any state money to supplement purses.
However, thanks to a general rise in attendance at its live races, ACRC was able to add more races within the six-day event in 2011. The number of races was upped from 36 to 38 last year.
While Bugdon couldn't confirm a definite increase in races this year, she is hopeful it will happen by April.
"We're still taking baby steps," Bugdon said. "That's why we try to add more races. We're growing it a little bit at a time."
Regardless of the state's horse racing climate, ACRC expects to continue its recent upward trend in attendance during the six-day event.
Those who attend can't help but love the environment.
"There's nothing like live racing," Prehard said.
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