The Man Is a Fan

Jeff Gural has passion for harness racing and love for the horse

by Gordon Waterstone

As a teenager growing up on New York’s Long Island, Jeff Gural sneaked into racetracks for the racing action. Today he owns a piece of scores of racehorses, broodmares, weanlings and yearlings; a 90-acre farm in Sayre, Pa.; a 130-acre farm in Stanfordville, N.Y.; and three racetracks—the Meadowlands, Vernon Downs and Tioga Downs. In 2010, he spearheaded the movement to purchase the Meadowlands to ensure the racetrack remained viable. After rounding up investors, Gural spent nearly $100 million building a new 155,000-square-foot Meadowlands grandstand, which opened in 2013, as well as an off-track wagering facility in Bayonne, N.J.

Gural’s Allerage Farms sponsor many races, including the Allerage Farms for older horses of both gaits and sexes that are contested at The Red Mile each fall.

Gural attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, graduating with a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering. It was while in college he met his wife Paula, a geologist, and they will celebrate their 57th wedding anniversary on Aug. 14. The couple have three children—Eric, Roger and Aileen—and several grandchildren.

In 1972 Gural followed his father, Aaron, into the real estate business that included commercial and residential buildings in New York City. Today he is chairman of Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, a real estate firm that manages and leases more than eight million-square-feet of property.

Gural has been the recipient of many awards in racing, including the U.S. Harness Writers Association’s Proximity (2006), President’s (2011) and Unsung Hero (2004) awards; the Little Brown Jug Wall of Fame; the Harness Tracks of America’s Stan Bergstein Messenger Award; the Hambletonian Society’s Frederick L. Van Lennep Award; and the University of Louisville Equine Industry Program’s John W. Galbreath Award.

His many humanitarian efforts outside racing include serving as president of the New York Chapter of the Starlight Starbright Children’s Foundation.

Gural was inducted into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in Goshen, N.Y., on July 4, two days prior to his 79th birthday. Before that event, he talked about how he became a harness racing fan with the USTA’s Gordon Waterstone.

HB: When did you start going to the racetrack?

Gural: I lived on Long Island near Roosevelt Raceway and Aqueduct and Belmont.

When I was in high school, somebody asked me if I wanted to go to Yonkers. I went with him and another friend. Naturally, we won. I couldn’t wait to go back.

I was losing one time and I think I had $2 left. I bet the $2 on a horse from the eight hole named Mighty Pence. How I can remember this I have no idea; this is 60 years ago. What are the odds of a horse winning from the eight hole? But sure enough, the horse won and paid $35, so I got all the money I had lost back. I was hooked. I thought I knew what I was doing.

HB: You had to still be in high school?

Gural: We had to sneak in because we weren’t even 18. We were juniors in high school. Sometimes the tellers would let us bet, sometimes they would ask for ID, so we’d go to another teller to make the bet. When I was a senior and 18, we used to go for the last races because they let us in free. Someone would always hand us a program and we’d go for the last two races. That was it. I was totally hooked.

Back then it was so popular. I remember going to Roosevelt and it would be hard to find your car on a Saturday night, the parking lot was so full. It was a social thing.

HB: Did you ever go with your father to the track?

Gural: My father hated it. One day he decided he would come with me to Roosevelt Raceway. I took a back route, which was foolish, because my father said, ‘How do you know how to get to Roosevelt through a back route?’ He had no idea I used to go to the track; he thought I was going out with girls. I swear to God, that was the best day I ever had at the track.

I went to school at Rensselaer (Polytechnic Institute) and sometimes I would go to the Saratoga harness track. I had to go to summer school, but only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I would go to the Saratoga Thoroughbred track with friends most of the other days because we didn’t have anything else to do. And if we won by some miracle at the Thoroughbred track, we would immediately go to the harness track and see if we could win at both places. That was my life.

HB: How did you meet your wife, Paula?

Gural: I met her in college. There was a mixer that was held for the freshman girls for our fraternity. I was in Phi Sigma Delta, which no longer exists, and I was president of my fraternity. I was a junior and she was a freshman. I didn’t know who she was. She went to Russell Sage College, which was a girls’ school, and Rensselaer was all boys.

Back then there was a curfew. I had a car and a bunch of girls jumped in the car. I guess I had my books on the back seat because I wasn’t planning on using them over the weekend. She jumped out of the car and took my books with her by mistake. She called the fraternity the next day to find out who I was. She felt bad she took my books. Little did she know I had no use for them.

I asked around and people said she was cute. I got all dressed up to go get my books, figuring I was going to meet this cute girl. She sends her roommate down with the books. So that was it. She started dating a fraternity brother of mine, but I always thought she was cute. I worked on it and got her to marry me.

HB: What did you do out of college?

Gural: When I left Rensselaer I went to California to look for a job and I found a job [there] and I told my girlfriend (Paula) at the time that I found a job working for the state. Back then, Hollywood Park and Santa Anita had great harness racing. At the end of the season they had all these big $50,000 free-for-alls, with guys like Joe O’Brien.

HB: You soon returned to New York?

Gural: I came back and got a job working for a construction company.  I wasn’t going that much (to the racetrack) because I was working hard and trying to make a good impression.

HB: When did you buy your first racehorse?

Gural: One day I was at Roosevelt and I saw someone that I worked with in the grandstand. I didn’t know the guy that well, but I knew his name was Don Piser. We struck up a friendship and agreed we would try and buy a horse together. He was friendly with Bob Bencal, who was working for Billy Haughton.

We decided that we would put our money together and claim a horse. We had a horse named Shadydale Yankios that we were going to claim. We had the money and we went to claim the horse and the horse was scratched. We were so pissed because we figured the guy knew we were going to claim the horse.

Next thing we know the horse was racing at Liberty Bell. We decided we were going to outsmart (the trainer) and drive down to Liberty Bell and claim the horse. They only took cash, so we had $7,500 in cash and we went in and claimed the horse. At the time, Jim Grundy was friendly with Bob and he claimed the horse for us, so he was the trainer. You had to leave the horse there for something like a month.

HB: When did the second horse come?

Gural: We claimed another horse named Glenvale. That horse was driven by Gilles Lachance. He was in a $6,000 claimer and the night we claimed him the horse won by a nose in something like 2:05. Bencal took the horse and turned him out for a week. He put him back in and the horse was classified something like A2, which was ridiculous. Grundy drove the horse and the horse won for fun in 2:02.

HB: You were then really hooked?

Gural: I ended up talking my wife into going up (near Monticello) during the summers and living in a bungalow so I could go to the track all the time. Those were the best years of my life. We lived in the bungalows and we had three kids. When they were small the kids stayed with us; when they got bigger they went off to camp. It was paradise.

I worked for the construction company and I made a deal that I would take every Friday off. Instead of taking two weeks of vacation, they gave me 10 Fridays. I would meet people who lived in the bungalows around 4:30 or 5:00 on Thursdays. I would drive up to meet them, jump out of the car, kiss my wife, and immediately go to Monticello, which was packed.

HB: You still see any of those longtime friends?

Gural: Oh, yeah. We’re all friends, but the only ones still in the business are Dave Stolz and Art Geiger. Don Piser went into the Thoroughbred game and the other guys got out of it. So I’m down to almost nobody to go to the track with. I have one new friend who was actually friendly with Bencal. His name is Mickey. Before COVID he used to go with me but now he doesn’t want to go. I’m not even sure of his last name; I just call him Mickey.

HB: Going back, there was a period though that you actually got out of the business as an owner?

Gural: I kind of got out of it. I don’t remember what happened. My friends from Staten Island had some good horses and I had some bad horses. I changed jobs and went to work in real estate with my father’s company. A few years later, I was going to Yonkers and ran into Bencal, who was sitting on a car. I said I’d like to get back into it. We started buying good horses.

HB: Do you remember your first time going to the Meadowlands?

Gural: I didn’t go opening day (in 1976), but I went shortly after. I remember I used to give the two girls—one of them was Patty—$5 to let me sit in the owners’ section. I remember I bought a horse from Haughton—it was a Hanover horse—and he won. It was the first win I had at the Meadowlands. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the horse.

HB: People see you at the betting windows, but you’re really not a big player?

Gural: The biggest bet I probably ever made was when we had Glenvale, the second horse we bought. We brought the horse to Roosevelt and we put him in a $15,000 claimer and he was up the track. We dropped him in for $12,500 and he was up the track. We dropped him in for $10,000 and Grundy, who was the driver, told me he couldn’t lose. I was with my father, who had a client who liked to go to the track. I took them with me and my father’s friend told my father, ‘Your son is crazy; that horse can’t win.’ The horse won easily that day and paid $25.

HB: You bought your New York farm in 1988 and then Allerage Farms in Pennsylvania in 2006. How did that farm come about?

Gural: I had sold a (real estate) building and I was very unhappy selling the building. I made some money and I told my wife that the only way I’d be happy is to piss the money away. I ran into this guy who had a farm upstate in Dutchess County. He was an electrician and he invited me to come up for the weekend and see his operation. We loved the area. We bought a farm a few miles from his and still have that farm. That’s Allerage Farm.

We started buying yearlings and breeding mares, and never in a million years did I think I would own any of these tracks.

HB: With sports betting now at the Meadowlands, do you wager on sports?

Gural: I’m not allowed to bet. Before sports betting became legal I used to bet on football. I would bet $100 a game and loved it. I became an avid football fan. There is nothing harder than trying to win betting football. I used to root for the underdog in every game.

HB: What has been your biggest surprise about the sportsbook’s success?

Gural: The fact that we win almost every day. Anytime somebody with name recognition wins, we typically lose. Tiger Woods (winning the Masters) was a big loss. People bet the favorites, so I am always rooting for the underdog. Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl, so that was good. I just root for the underdogs. It could turn around, but we’ve been very lucky. Our business is through the roof. We’re the largest sportsbook in the world.

The casinos at Tioga and Vernon are also doing well.

HB: How is on-track business at the Meadowlands since fans were allowed back in when COVID-19 restrictions were lifted?

Gural: Everybody is back and bigger than ever at the casinos (at Tioga and Vernon). But I don’t know if that is going to happen at the racetrack. We haven’t seen any indication that it’s happening at the Meadowlands.

HB: You’re also very charitable, donating about $1 million a year to charities near Tioga Downs?

Gural: And I’m working on trying to lower our tax rate with the state, and if we get it lowered, then the money would go to charity, which would be around a million dollars.

HB: Who do you consider your very first good horse?

Gural: I consider Shadydale Yankios a good horse because he could win anytime. Probably though Chili Bowl, who won a heat of the Hambletonian Oaks and finished second in the summary. Then right after that, Lady Genius, who won the (1990) Jugette.

HB: What are your best racing moments?

Gural: Winning the Jugette was big and a thrill. Delaware is a lot of fun. And winning the (2018) Kentucky Futurity in Lexington with Six Pack. Winning a heat of the Hambletonian Oaks with Chili Bowl. I’ve had a lot of great moments. But probably the Jugette, because Dave Stolz was a partner on the horse, Bob Bencal was the trainer, and the race had been delayed two days because of rain. So we had to hang around for two days. We had the seven hole in the first heat and you never want to have that post. That was a big thrill.

HB: What is the one top race on your bucket list?

Gural: I guess the Hambletonian. We had a shot with Six Pack, but it just didn’t work out. I think he was the best horse that day. He is still the fastest 3-year-old and holds the track record at the Meadowlands and at the Red Mile. He was a super-fast horse. That was disappointing. Six Pack I thought was going to win, and he would have if he had any luck.

HB: What horse would you have liked to have owned?

Gural: Honestly, Cam Fella. He didn’t have a top catch-driver as a driver and he was almost unbeatable. And he raced every week.

HB: You have horses now with several trainers. Why did you branch out?

Gural: I changed my operation after Bob Bencal retired. He just couldn’t do it anymore because you can’t do it when you’re 80. I’ve become more successful because I have pieces of horses with a lot of top trainers. Åke Svanstedt, Andy Miller, Nifty Norman. So that’s worked out good for me and I’m having a lot of fun.

I also have a lot of mares, weanlings and yearlings. But I cut back on the number of yearlings I took a piece of (last year) because the real estate business collapsed. So I cut back.

HB: Finally, you were recently inducted into the sport’s Hall of Fame in Goshen, N.Y. What does that mean to you?

Gural: My favorite weekend of the year was Goshen when I was in college. I would go there with a couple of friends. To walk around and see Billy Haughton, Stanley Dancer and all the great names and great horses. It was such a thrill. Back then you could bet. I still love to go to Goshen because Ray Schnittker has a great barbecue there.

I really didn’t want to go into the Hall of Fame before I could solve the drug problem. Luckily, we solved the drug program, or at least partially solved it. So I feel better. I feel my biggest contribution to the sport is the cleaning up of the drug guys. And I’m not done yet. It’s more important to me than winning a race. I’d love to win the Hambletonian and I’ve won a lot of stakes, but the most important thing I want to be remembered for is cleaning up the drugs. HB

Gordon Waterstone is a USTA editorial specialist. To comment on this story, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

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