About 20,000 braved the heat and the long betting lines on Saturday at the Meadowlands Racetrack to be a part of harness racing’s greatest day.

The Hambletonian, which featured the Hambletonian Heats & Final and Hambletonian Oaks Final, was held on Saturday at “The Big M” in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Along with the featured races and a daylong card the Hambletonian, or Hambletonian Stakes offered something for the entire family including a free outdoor concert, carnival rides and games, pony rides, and face painters. Both serious racing enthusiasts and those looking to continue a family tradition and enjoy a day of outdoor festivities attended the event.

Considered to be harness racing’s premier event, the Hambletonian is held each August. The daylong event dates back to 1926 and is named for Hambletonian 10 or Rysdyk’s Hambletonian, a Standardbred American Trotter bred by Jonas Seeley, Jr.in 1849 and owned by William Rysdyk. The stallion is widely regarded as the “Father of the American Trotter,” and a foundation sire of Standardbreds. The Meadowlands has hosted the Hambletonian since 1981.

Saturday’s running of the Hambletonian was the third since the smaller, $100 million grandstand opened along what was once the backstretch at the Meadowlands Racetrack. About 20,132 paid to attend the event on Saturday; approximately 1,800 less than last year, according to Rachel Ryan, a spokeswoman for the track’s operator, Meadowlands Racing & Entertainment, as reported by NorthJersey.com.

Since Governor Christie’s decision to overhaul New Jersey’s gaming industry five years ago, the state’s thoroughbred horse­men have faced challenges to stay afloat. That could change later this month if a federal appeals panel allows the casinos and racetracks in the state to run sports-betting operations similar to Las Vegas.

Voters in the state will also decide in November whether or not to end Atlantic City’s casino gambling monopoly and allow two casinos to open for business in North Jersey. If voters approve the expansion, approximately $3 million annually in purse subsidies would be split by the horsemen from revenue generated by the new casinos; something that horsemen in competing states already receive.

Jeff Gural, who along with the Meadowlands Racetrack runs the racinos Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs in New York, is expected to be a major bidder if the referendum is successful. Gural believes the now confirmed October 10, 2016 closing of the Trump Taj Mahal is further proof that the state of the casino industry in Atlantic City is such that the North Jersey casino referendum needs to be approved as the approximately $200 million annually generated by the new casinos would aid in rebuilding the economically beleaguered city. A sentiment that was echoed by workers at the racetrack on Saturday who wore t-shirts that on the front read “Our Turn NJ” and “Vote Yes on Gaming Expansion” on the back.

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