Logistics make delay in Atlantic City beach race

The Atlantic City Alliance is focused on rebranding the resort as a year-round destination. A beach race was part of the plan.
The Atlantic City Alliance is focused on rebranding the resort as a year-round destination. A beach race was part of the plan. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 06, 2013

ATLANTIC CITY Beachfront horse racing, Italian-style, will have to wait.

It appears that the American version of the Palio race, planned for this resort starting Friday, will not be held.

Despite the support of dozens of lawmakers and Gov. Christie, who signed the measure allowing races on Oct. 11 and 13, the Atlantic City Alliance said logistics, as well as the safety of the horses, called for postponing the event. New dates have yet to be determined for next year.

"We've been working on it for six months," Jeff Guaracino, chief strategist for the alliance, the nonprofit charged with marketing the resort, said Friday. "We just ran out of time."

The alliance, fresh from its success in bringing the Miss America Pageant back, is focused on rebranding Atlantic City as a year-round destination. The Palio races were intended to be another off-summer, non-gambling event to aid the struggling city.

It was to have all the trappings of a spectacle: put an American twist on an Old World classic, race horses with the backdrop of the ocean, and invite scores of spectators.

Both houses in the Legislature unanimously approved the bill allowing the "American Palio in Atlantic City" last month, and Christie signed it Sept. 20.

"This has all the makings of a fun and great event, the type of which we've been trying to lure to Atlantic City to highlight it as a topflight entertainment destination," said Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester), one of several legislative sponsors.

The special races were to extend three-quarters of a mile on the beach, instead of a half-mile around the town square as in the 700-year tradition in Siena. Fifty horses were to compete in elimination races leading to the American Palio championship.

But horse racing on any beach is complicated, said Guaracino, and there were just too many issues to resolve.

Such as, he said, should the horses race during high tide or low tide? How much water was needed to firm up the sandy beach? And - not the least - should wagering be allowed?

Although the Palio legislation allows for betting, "we are concurrently looking at what we can do with horses on the beach, what would the spectators do, and what kind of exhibitions would we offer," he said.

"We don't need the legislation to have horses on the beach, but we need it if betting is involved. It's one of the things we're reviewing."

The event's name may also change.

"The initial inspiration was the Palio," he said. "We're still deciding what to call it, or whether we're even using that name."

Guaracino defended the alliance and said the agency never confirmed a time for the races - though the legislation clearly stated the October dates.

"We never announced when one and all to come, and which weekend, so we don't see it as delayed," he said. "That's why we never issued a news release. But we are committed to it, and are actively working on it.

"It continues to be the alliance's strategy," said Guaracino, "to have a real spectacle to get people interested in coming to Atlantic City. That's the primary goal. The ancillary goal is, how can this thing generate revenue?"

The resort, which has sustained declines in gaming revenue the last six years because of regional casino competition, could use the help.

Assemblyman John Amodeo (R., Atlantic), who initiated the Americanized Palio, sounded more like an engineer than a politician Friday.

For months, he said, he has had ongoing discussions with the city engineer, the fire chief, and the head of the Municipal Utilities Authority, which supplies the resort's water, on how to make the event happen.

"We needed 6,000 gallons [of water] an hour for three days before the race" to make the track hard and safe, Amodeo said. "For the horses to run at maximum capacity and so they don't hurt themselves, they needed a certain compactness, a flat track.

"You can't get sugar beach sand into a consistency," he said. "It has to be hydrated to achieve a hard surface. Otherwise, it turns into a soup bowl. We just couldn't figure out a way to do it yet."

Amodeo said that for public safety reasons, it was also decided that there wasn't enough authority-supplied water for the races, so instead, water would come from the Atlantic Ocean.

The alliance has an engineer determining how to pump the water from the ocean into a tank and under the Boardwalk.

"There are a lot of logistics to get it into place," Amodeo said. "We are going to have the race. I promise you that.

"We just have to work through the details."


sparmley@phillynews.com

856-779-3928 @SuzParmley

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