‘Light at the end of the tunnel’ for Monmouth Park?

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: May 10, 2017

The challenges faced by Monmouth Park are many, but supporters of New Jersey Thoroughbred racing May 9 dispatched with the gloom-and-doom and appeared truly optimistic about the future of the historic facility.

They did revisit history for background purposes, but their message, perhaps because of anticipated changes in the state’s political climate, was simple: Monmouth and horse racing in New Jersey aren’t going away.

“This industry may be hurting, but it’s not dead,” Democratic Sen. Richard Codey, who was acting governor of the state for a little more than a year after the resignation of Jim McGreevey in November 2014, said during a meet kickoff luncheon at Monmouth. “For all the people in New Jersey, racing fans or not, (helping the industry) is the right thing to do. Come January, there will be a new attitude in Trenton.”

Republican Gov. Chris Christie, soon after he took office almost eight years ago, greatly changed the landscape for horse racing in the state. He moved to “privatize” the business by having entities lease and operate Monmouth and Meadowlands, which had been operated by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. He also terminated purse supplements the Atlantic City casino industry had paid racing to maintain its gaming monopoly in the state, and years later authorized a bailout for the troubled casino industry.

Two of the candidates to take over from Christie early next year are Republican Kim Guadagno, the current lieutenant governor, and Democrat Phil Murphy, who served as United States Ambassador to Germany under President Obama. Both live in Monmouth County in central New Jersey and are said to be well aware of the track’s importance to the state’s economy.

Sen. Raymond Lesniak, a Democrat, on May 9 tweeted that he is “determined to save Monmouth Park and our horse farms.” Lesniak lives in Elizabeth in North Jersey.

“Racing is not a partisan issue,” Codey said. “Democrats and Republicans agree we have to keep this place alive. I’m all for helping Atlantic City, but $1 billion compared to nothing (for racing) is not right.”

“Phil Murphy is a supporter of horse racing,” he said of his fellow Democrat. “We’re looking at a plan to do historical racing down here, but we’ll probably need a (purse) subsidy until we get that done. There is light at the end of the tunnel. We just need to hold on.”

Dennis Drazin, an attorney and longtime Thoroughbred owner and breeder who serves as the chief adviser for Darby Development, the entity that operates Monmouth on behalf of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, indicated he’s optimistic New Jersey racing and breeding will move forward.

“We’ve been doing this a long time,” Drazin said of the political game. “Over the years both sides of the aisle (in Trenton) and the local politicians have always supported Monmouth Park and the racing and breeding industry. But it takes three people to get anything done in Trenton—the Senate President, Assembly Speaker, and the governor. For many years we’ve had two of three. We’re looking forward to next year when we’ll have more support in the legislature and in the front office.”

Drazin said racing “didn’t get a lot of help” from Christie, but he noted the outgoing governor is a strong supporter of sports betting at New Jersey tracks and casinos and also urged the NJSEA to support the track lessees that now operate Monmouth and Meadowlands.

“Going forward we’ll need the help of politicians,” Drazin said. “Everyone running for governor seems to be on the same page about helping Monmouth Park. We need more support in Trenton, but we have to act as one industry. It’s important everybody works together with the legislature and new administration to make sure we survive.

“People are surprised we’re still here, but I commit to you I will do my best to preserve Monmouth Park forever.”

The 2017 meet begins May 13 with a purse structure similar to that of last year based on the NJTHA’s plan to run 50 days at Monmouth and another six days of grass racing at Meadowlands. Legislation that would permit the NJTHA to race fewer than the mandated 71 dates has passed the Assembly but not the Senate.

The entry box on a day-to-day basis will tell the tale. Drazin said he expects a fairly full barn area, but beginning in June in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions, nine meets will overlap.

“I can’t blame people for looking at purses in other states (with gaming supplements),” Drazin said. “But we’re in it to try to preserve racing and to keep it world-class. We’re asking horsemen to support our meet. No matter how good we may do, until we have the tools some other states are working with, we’ll be up against it and not able to compete as well.”

Monmouth also took its food service in-house with plans to offer much more variety and local products. Thomas Barone, the track’s first Vice President of Food and Beverage, noted that having autonomy will let the track adjust pricing; domestic and imported beer, for example, will sell for $4-$5 instead of $7-$8 under the previous concessionaire.

“It’s an exciting new time not just for Monmouth Park, but more importantly for our fans,” Barone said. “We want to give the fans what they want.”

Meanwhile, Drazin predicted the state’s five-year battle to win approval for sports betting will result in victory. It is in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court, which asked the U.S. Solicitor General to issue a brief on the case.

“It’s no longer a question of if but when sports betting will come,” Drazin said. “We are proud to have spearheaded this movement and are confident the first sports wager will take place at Monmouth in the very near future.”

The NJTHA during the press event announced that Bob Kulina, the longtime general manager of Monmouth, is the recipient of this year’s Virgil “Buddy” Raines Achievement Award for his contributions to local horse racing.

(Photos of Monmouth Park, Dennis Drazin by Tom LaMarra)