The president of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association said allegations by the New Jersey Racing Commission and a state Superior Court judge that health-care benefits for backstretch personnel have been reduced in lieu of political contributions are "unfounded" and "ludicrous."
"I want to assure horsemen that their medical benefits have not been stopped--they are the same as always," Francis "Bud" Keegan said. "These recent allegations are just a bunch of rhetoric, and the media hasn't given us a chance to explain our side."
On Dec. 24, Superior Court Judge Clarkson Fisher issued an order that froze the THA's interest account, money the association's Thoro-Pac political arm had used for political contributions. The commission alleges the THA spent $1 million on politicians and lawyers and doubled the salaries of some top employees, but slashed medical benefits for backstretch workers.
Keegan said backstretch workers are covered for eight of 12 months, and that money for the remaining four months comes from a benevolence fund.
Dennis Drazin, legal counsel for the THA, said he believes the latest salvo from the commission was an attempt to "punish us for trying to make things right in New Jersey," and stemmed from the introduction of a bill that would allow horsemen to sit on the commission. That measure was passed by both the House and Senate in late October but conditionally vetoed by Gov. Jim McGreevey in late December.
"The commission is retaliating against us and trying to 'muddy us up,' " said Drazin, who reportedly had been in line for the commission chairmanship. "We need unity now, not destruction."
Recently, the THA and the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority had been in negotiations to reduce the amount of live racing dates for 2003 from 141 to 120, primarily because of a lack of purse money. Negotiations are ongoing, but Drazin said that because of interference by the commission, it is his guess 141 days would be run.
A reduction to 120 would require an amendment to the law that mandates 141 dates be run. The stipulation is part of a package that authorizes off-track and account wagering in the state.
Bruce Garland, senior vice president of the NJSEA, said that if 141 days are run in 2003, purses at Monmouth Park and Meadowlands would be below $200,000 per day, and that the quality of racing would suffer. He also said money traditionally spent to make Monmouth sparkle--for flowers, additional employees, and the like--would be eliminated.