By Tom De Martini
On the surface, Saturday, May 14, appeared much like any other anticipated Monmouth Park opening day. However, the opening-day status quo and buzz were far from normal at the New Jersey racetrack.
The scheduled June 1 lease of Monmouth to Resorts Atlantic City Casino owner Morris Bailey, announced by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie May 12, still left the eventual length of the 2011 Monmouth meeting a main point of contention.
State law mandates 141 days of live racing annually through 2016 in order to keep Internet and off-track wagering operating in the Garden State.
Yet, published reports and unofficial word from track management say that a five-year lease deal for a 71-day live meet with an average daily purse level of $400,000 has been struck. That purse level would stand as the second highest in Monmouth history.
Track management May 14 declined to confirm or deny the live dates agreement. An official announcement to that effect could come from the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority as early as May 15, track officials said.
Both officials and published reports say the schedule will likely mirror that of last year’s $50 million “elite meet” with live racing set for Fridays through Sundays through Labor Day weekend. Live racing would be reduced to weekends from September through mid-November.
Monmouth vice president and general manager Robert Kulina said the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association needs to ratify the before any official announcement can be made.
“There are a lot of moving parts it to it,” Kulina said. “The I’s need to be dotted and the T’s need to be crossed. We’re close to finalizing the process, and once that happens I think the future is bright. I have strong expectations that when all is said and done, we’ll be racing for the second-highest purse structure in our history.”
Kulina said some movement has been made in the longstanding dispute between Thoroughbred and Standardbred horsemen concerning Meadowlands simulcast revenue. Thoroughbred horsemen are said to want $1.5 million from Meadowlands simulcast funds for their purse account, even though no Thoroughbred racing dates are scheduled this year at the harness racing facility.
New Jersey THA president John Forbes has been uncharacteristically mum concerning the proposed agreement.
“When we left (Christie’s) office (May 12), the understanding was that we had an agreement in principle subject to contract and board approval,” Forbes said.
Longtime Monmouth trainer Greg Sacco said he and most New Jersey horsemen would prefer a longer meet.
“I’m the eternal optimist and I was hoping a deal would be struck,” Sacco said. “I would like a longer meet, and many of the horsemen would like a longer meet, but it’s not a perfect world. We were confident a deal would be structured. How could you close a remarkable track like this?”
Christie brokered the final lease agreement for Monmouth and Meadowlands, both owned and operated by the NJSEA. Christie, who signed a one-year pact last year to fund the $50 million elite meet, publicly took the stance that the state should be out of the horse racing business.
New Jersey’s Thoroughbred and Standardbred purses have been bolstered by subsidies from the state's casinos for many years.
This weekend’s Monmouth cards were run under the auspices of the NJSEA. The May14 opening day 11-race card drew 89 horses before seven program scratches and $473,000 in purses. The May 15 program features 12 races with 114 horses entered for $402,000 in purses.