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Christie to horse owners: One week to reach deal

He blamed them for an investor's pulling out of an agreement to lease Monmouth Park.

NEWARK, N.J. - Gov. Christie issued an ultimatum to New Jersey's thoroughbred horse owners Monday, telling them they had a week to come up with a new deal to save horse racing in the state.

Christie blamed the owners for causing an investor to pull out of an agreement to lease Monmouth Park.

He said a recent handshake agreement with the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association was scuttled when lawyers for the group made new demands for $5 million in purse subsidies.

"If they don't come to us in the next week with a deal that works and stop extorting the taxpayers for millions of dollars in subsidies to their industry, then we're not going to have a deal and we won't have a horse-racing industry in the state anymore," he said.

John Forbes, president of the association, said he could not immediately comment on Christie's ultimatum. A message left for the group's attorney was not returned.

The dispute threatens to derail the governor's plan to privatize both Monmouth and the Meadowlands Racetrack, deals he has said have to be executed at the same time, after he decided to end state subsidies to racing more than a year ago.

Christie has looked for a way to get the state out of horse racing. A commission he appointed recommended ending a $30 million annual subsidy to racing, which has been done.

The Meadowlands was projected to lose $11 million this year. Monmouth Park was projected to lose $6.6 million.

Contracts to transfer the tracks to private owners were slated for signature Dec. 5, at which time control of Monmouth Raceway would have gone to casino owner Morris Bailey, with Meadowlands operations going to Jeff Gural, who owns Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs in Upstate New York and two horse farms.

When negotiations between the owners' association and the administration hit a snag, Bailey pulled out of a five-year lease deal for the Oceanport track.

Tom Luchento, president of the Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association of New Jersey, said Monday that the deal with Gural to lease the Meadowlands for standardbred racing appeared to be moving forward and that Christie's dispute with the thoroughbred association would not affect it.

Forbes told the Associated Press recently that his organization had been prepared to sign a deal when the administration changed its tune "at the eleventh hour." Under the original agreement, the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association would have been granted a permit to run thoroughbred races at the Meadowlands on certain dates, though all such races had been consolidated at Monmouth.

In exchange, the association agreed to cut the racing schedule in half, to 71 days for five years. But Forbes said the administration reneged on the permit for thoroughbred racing at the Meadowlands - a permit that also would have given his group the flexibility to seek additional racing dates and potentially be used as a bargaining chip if the Meadowlands got slot machines or other alternative gaming.

What derailed the final deal has not been explained by either side.

Christie on Monday accused the group of holding taxpayers hostage.

"The problem is the thoroughbred horsemen are completely untrustworthy, that's the problem," Christie said. "I simply am no longer going to permit millionaire horsemen to take money from waiters and waitresses and police officers and teachers who are the taxpayers of this state to fund their industry."

Christie added that he hoped a deal could still be reached.