For ‘President’ Forbes, THA and Monmouth are labors of love

Posted: March 14, 2017

John Forbes spent his early years in Maryland, but he will always be known as a Jersey guy when it comes to Thoroughbred racing.

Forbes has been a mainstay in New Jersey since the mid- to late 1970s, and as such has seen a year-round, four-track circuit dwindle to about 70 racing programs a year, most of them at Monmouth Park. The winner of more than 2,100 races as a trainer now oversees the racing partnership Phantom House Farm, but he also has spent decades advocating for horsemen.

Forbes, president of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association since 2010, was recognized the evening of March 9 with the THA President’s Award during a board of directors dinner in Florida. It was a fitting acknowledgement for a man who was among those that helped launch the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association in the mid-1990s.

“It’s a privilege to be a part of it,” Forbes said. “I didn’t do anything that anyone in this room wouldn’t do, and I have a great executive director (in Mike Musto). This is a tremendous honor. I really don’t know what else to say.”

In a follow-up discussion, Forbes had plenty to say about his involvement with the THA and Monmouth, both of which consume much of his time.

The National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, of which New Jersey was an affiliate, was in turmoil at the time the THA was created. New Jersey horsemen were among those in six states that followed Maryland’s lead to become charter members of the THA under then and current Chairman Alan Foreman.

“We didn’t want to get involved in a fight so we worked independently to put together a pact,” Forbes said of the formation of the THA. “Our sense was we had to get politically strong. I knew Alan and what he was doing in Maryland, and I thought we needed to do something to give horsemen some legitimacy in an organization. Alan really was the guy who carried the water.

“The whole process was really about trying to get an organization where everyone had an equal voice, and to address important issues of common interest for the benefit of the whole industry while not interfering with other states’ issues. We agreed to help the states if they asked for help but also agreed it would be best not to interfere.

“It was agreed that the organization would not dictate to its members. We’d all be on our own but all together at the same time.”

The first organizational outline of the THA listed six purposes: dissemination and sharing of information on regional and national issues; serve as a conduit for formulation of policy decisions on regional and national issues; be a spokesman for member groups on various issues; represent members’ interests before regulatory agencies and industry organizations; serve as a catalyst for industry change and improvement; and expand communication among member groups.

The THA hasn’t strayed from that charter in more than 20 years. Forbes credits Foreman and Rick Violette Jr., President of the THA and New York THA, for keeping the organization true to its roots.

“With Rick and Alan, it’s easy to contribute when you have guys like that who dedicate themselves to the task,” Forbes said. “Whether the issue is medication, betting platforms, or safety and integrity, the THA has a voice. Real success is shown by the fact that through the years, members have come in, left, and come back to the organization.

“The people change, but without exception everyone that has been exposed to the process of how the THA is run has felt comfortable, and a benefit of that is unity on issues of importance. We had to go out and promote the concept. We didn’t want to oversell it, and we wanted the industry to know we weren’t a bunch of yahoos.”

Today, Forbes is more than the head of a horsemen’s group because the NJTHA is now a racetrack operator as well. The group’s lease of Monmouth sprung from necessity when Gov. Chris Christie in 2010 ordered the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority to get out of the racing business.

“What’s it like to wear two hats? It’s educational and enlightening to sit on both sides of the desk,” Forbes said. “When there’s a clash between horse racing and management, your view changes. We’ve always understood the two sides, but now the challenge is to keep a racetrack going and promote the sport without losing a lot of money.”

The NJTHA contracts with Darby Development to operate Monmouth. Attorney and Thoroughbred owner and breeder Dennis Drazin is the chief adviser, while Bob Kulina, a longtime member of the Monmouth management team, serves as president of the racetrack.

Forbes doesn’t pull punches. He makes it clear that operating a racetrack without alternative revenue sources is extremely difficult in a state surrounded by tracks that benefit from casino revenue—and one in which the casino industry would prefer the racing industry disappear.

“We need to last long enough to be able to compete in the Mid-Atlantic region with purses that can attract owners,” Forbes said. “Our deal is selling bets; that’s how we make money, and we have to keep it that way. We’re making the case for alternative revenue to keep racing going even though we’d rather do it without a single dime of slots money or other revenue source.”

In order to maintain a quality program, the NJTHA lobbied for legislation that would allow it to drop the required minimum number of racing days each year to 50 from 71. Though the bill passed the state Assembly but still awaits action by the Senate, the Thoroughbred schedule for 2017 has been revised to 50 days at Monmouth and only six all-turf cards at Meadowlands in anticipation of it becoming law.

Monmouth last year began offering exchange wagering through Betfair TVG, which provides the platform for New Jersey’s advance deposit wagering system, in an effort to attract younger bettors looking for more action. It is at the forefront of a growing national push to legalize sports betting. And state lawmakers who are considered friends of the racing industry and believe an expansion of casino gambling beyond Atlantic City is inevitable regularly introduce bills authorizing racetrack video lottery terminals.

So there could be other legitimate revenue streams in the future. In the meantime, however, Forbes said the NJTHA has much work to do at Monmouth, which dates back to 1870 and is critical to the continuation of Thoroughbred racing and breeding in New Jersey given the closure of Garden State Park in 2001 and Atlantic City Race Course in 2015.

The NJTHA has expressed a desire to host longer meets—with dirt and turf racing—at Meadowlands, but the finances don’t currently work to support that arrangement.

“We’re not just looking at 2017—we’re looking at 2027,” Forbes said. “At the end of the day we’re not planning on going anywhere. We just want to stay as relevant as we can in the meantime.

“There is a fan base at Monmouth Park that is generational. The town of Oceanport not only needs the track for revenue—Monmouth has become the face of the community. People love Monmouth. It’s about love of that old racetrack and its traditions, and so many of us just won’t let that go.

“It’s hard to describe. I guess you would say it has a soul, and people connect to that.”

THA President’s Award recipients:

Mike Musto, Executive Director of the NJTHA

Wayne Wright, former Executive Director of the MTHA

Rick Violette Jr., President of the THA and NYTHA

Dennis Drazin, adviser to the NJTHA

David Richardson, Executive Director of the MTHA

John Forbes, President of the NJTHA

(THA photo of Alan Foreman, John Forbes and Mike Musto, left to right)