For the team at Monmouth Park, optimism is the only way to go

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: May 10, 2018

The annual press conference that signals the beginning of the Monmouth Park season historically has been upbeat despite the serious challenges faced by the track.

This year’s event, held May 8, was no different—and the stakes haven’t been higher. In the near term, the track is heavily invested in an upcoming United States Supreme Court decision regarding the future of legalized sports betting in New Jersey, and probably beyond.

The New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, which leases Monmouth from the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, has been at the forefront of the effort to challenge the constitutionality of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. The NJTHA and the state combined have spent about $9 million on the seven-year fight.

William Hill, the betting company, has advanced $2.5 million to Monmouth so far for its sports book and subsequent renovation of the nearby grandstand area to accommodate sports betting.

“Seven years fly,” said Dennis Drazin, Chief Executive Officer of Darby Development, which operates Monmouth on behalf of the NJTHA. “There has been a lot of anxiety and questions about Monmouth Park surviving, but through the hard work of our team, Monmouth Park has not only survived but prospered.

“The excitement is really building. The reality is everyone sees the light at the end of the tunnel. We’re on the precipice of victory in the Supreme Court on sports betting. When you talk to all the horsemen and they sense they’ll have the ability to compete, people see a bright future.

“I always thought the future was bright; I never gave up on it.”

In conjunction with the privatization of Monmouth and Meadowlands, former Gov. Chris Christie terminated an agreement whereby a share of Atlantic City casino revenue went to purse accounts. The NJTHA took over an operation at a major disadvantage with tracks in neighboring states that actually have casinos.

“Many people have asked me, ‘Why are you doing this?’ ” Drazin said. “We’re trying to save an industry. We’re not here for ourselves. We think we have a governor that wants to do the right thing and is willing to help us.”

Drazin acknowledged there have been discussions with the administration of Gov. Phil Murphy about supplemental revenue, but nothing has occurred. The state is still fashioning a new budget for the upcoming fiscal year; negotiations have been less than amicable among the governor and legislators.

Drazin also said he expects expanded gambling at racetracks will continue to be an issue regardless of what occurs with sports betting.

“Monmouth Park is going to grow,” he said. “In the next 10 years you’ll see a renovated Monmouth Park as well as an entertainment expansion. This won’t be done when the sports betting thing is over. We want to continue the dialogue on expanded gambling (at Monmouth).

“There will be opportunities to bring life back to Monmouth Park. We have to have the vision to draw people back to the racetrack.”

Focus on sports betting

Much of Drazin’s talk at the media and horsemen’s luncheon centered on sports betting and the celebrated case before the Supreme Court. Drazin, an attorney as well as a Thoroughbred breeder and owner, expressed strong confidence the decision will come down in favor of New Jersey.

“I’m about as positive as a lawyer can be that we’re going to win this case,” Drazin said. (Attorney) Ron Riccio is a horse guy; he’s here every day and has been there for us every moment of this case. He and I both believe we are going to win this case. It’s a matter of when, not if.”

Drazin said the best outcome for Monmouth would be a partial repeal of PASPA, but “it’s fair to say a majority of the Supreme Court believes PASPA is unconstitutional (based on previous oral arguments).”

“We’ve been the leaders on this,” Drazin said. “Everyone else has been tagging along. What people don’t understand—everyone seems to think it’s a simple case—is that this case has a much broader importance for the country. It’s history in the making. It’s about federalism, states’ rights, and the constitution of the United States.”

A partial repeal would allow New Jersey to offer sports betting, albeit unregulated by the state; the NJTHA has created an entity that would self-regulate in the interim. If PASPA is deemed unconstitutional, New Jersey—and any other state that pursues sports betting—would be required to pass legislation to regulate it.

Several New Jersey lawmakers already have introduced a bill that would govern and tax sports betting.

“We’re going to work together to make sure this turns out right, not only for the racing industry but for the casino industry,” Drazin said. “There are some good things in the bill that could help Monmouth.”

Drazin, who has been immersed in the issue for years, took the opportunity to question the motives of sports leagues that, after being totally opposed to sports betting, have warmed to it and are seeking a percentage of revenue as compensation for data or to pay for integrity programs.

“We’ve spend $9 million to battle them in court, and there were no talks about a revenue share,” Drazin said. “Now they’re on the edge of being a loser in the litigation and want to hire lobbyists to get a share of the revenue? Excuse me, but everyone thinks that is BS.

“It’s a $400 billion a year (illegal) industry now, but the leagues don’t care about integrity? Don’t they have to spend money now to preserve integrity? It’s all about trying to get a revenue share and pick our pockets. The leagues have exhibited nothing but bad faith in this.”

With revenue, a plan for growth

Drazin, despite his optimism over the impending court decision, did say “any court can do something that surprises you.” But in his address, he didn’t give the impression he expects anything but a win. Thus, the Monmouth team is planning for a bright future.

“We’re going to generate revenue and create opportunities for employees and horsemen and extend racing days and the racing season,” Drazin said. “Want to have a meet with turf and dirt racing at Meadowlands in the fall. We also want to give breeders the rights they have been asking for and revive the breeding industry in the state.

“All of these things we are trying to do have to be done carefully. (NJTHA President) John Forbes has said you can’t just add days in a vacuum—it’s a combination of purse money, length of season and you have to have the horses to support days you want to run.”

Drazin said he was about to strike an agreement with the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association of New Jersey that would allow it to again offer up to $500,000 in awards for New Jersey-breds that compete elsewhere when there is no racing in the state.

The New Jersey-bred foal crop in 2016 was 80 compared with more than 450 in 1996 and more than 1,000 in the 1980s. Though foal-crop declines are commonplace nationwide, New Jersey’s situation is compounded by the loss of a year-round racing program.

Garden State Park, which raced Thoroughbreds in the winter and spring, closed in 2001. By that time Atlantic City Race Course had greatly reduced its live race meets and, though it’s still standing, shut down all operations in January 2015. Meadowlands at one time raced four months in the fall.

Drazin also said purses for New Jersey-breds this year at Monmouth have been increased 25% in an effort to assist breeders.