by Tom LaMarra, Esther Marr, and Kelsey Riley
Thoroughbred breeders and owners in New Jersey hope a new summer format at Monmouth Park is successful, but they also are concerned about whether it will have a long-term positive effect.
New Jersey racing officials formally announced March 9 they will reduce Thoroughbred racing dates by about 50% this year and offer a 50-day Monmouth meet with projected purses of $1 million a day. A 21-day Monmouth meet with perhaps 75% less purse money would be held in the fall; Meadowlands won’t offer Thoroughbred racing this year.
The minimum purse during the “boutique” meet would be $30,000 for $5,000 claimers. That’s $7,000 higher than the top purse for $5,000 claimers at Philadelphia Park Casino & Racetrack, where purses are fueled by revenue from slot machines.
“I think that many of us are very excited for the upcoming meet,” said Tom Swales, president of the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association of New Jersey and owner of Tee N Jay Farm. “I think that it’s a scary situation because we don’t know how this is going to work out. I think everybody is tentative going in, but we’re also very excited and looking forward to seeing how this all plays out.
“We hope we all get our opportunities, and we all hope that we do well. Hopefully, if it works out to be a good thing, and we’re able to do something similar long-term, it will be a boom to the breeding industry.”
New Jersey hasn’t had a year-round Thoroughbred racing program for about 10 years because of the closure of Garden State Park and cutbacks in dates at Atlantic City Race Course. Over that period, the breeding industry has suffered numbers-wise.
According to The Jockey Club, the New Jersey Thoroughbred foal crop went from 400 in 1998 to 286 in 2008, a decline of 28.5%. In 2000, there were 56 stallions in New Jersey; in 2009, there were 22. The number of mares bred fell from 390 in 2007 to 192 in 2009, according to the statistics.
The TBANJ program pays New Jersey-bred horses that finish first through third in any New Jersey races. If a horse is sired by a New Jersey-registered stallion and conceived in the state, the award is 35% of purse earnings. If the horse is sired by a stallion that stands in another state, the award is 25% of purse earnings.
Surplus money is used to pay awards to Jersey-bred runners that place first, second, or third out of state for a period when there is no live racing in New Jersey. Officials with the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, operator of Monmouth and Meadowlands, said money has been set aside for that program.
“We have made the breeders’ awards program whole, and the breeder’s awards payments for 2008 and 2009 are going to be paid,” said Sam Fieramosca of Colonial Farms. “We have secured the out-of-state breeders’ awards program again starting next year, where breeders that race horses outside of the state will receive breeders’ awards with the percentages that we have in New Jersey, so we’re all happy about that.
“Maybe this will bring some interest back for the breeders, but I think if the plan works, the breeders’ awards program should go back to somewhere where it used to be.”
Pros and cons of schedule
Dianne Boyken of Four Winds Farm isn’t so sure. She is concerned about reduced racing dates and the impact that will have on the breeding program.
“I don’t think it’s going to help the breeders,” Boyken said. “Unfortunately, right now a lot of the breeders have already left the state, the breeding season has already started, and the mares are foaling, so without some input they had to make a decision. At least the (mares) at my farm, they’ve already left.
“I don’t see where 50 days of racing is going to support the breeders. We’ve got an investment here, and by the time we breed the mare, it’s three years down the road by the time (the foal is) racing. This is a plan that they’re putting up for this year only, I think as an experiment. That doesn’t solve anyone’s fear of when the horse you’re breeding is ready to race.
“I don’t see where it’s going to help (breeding). How can a breeder make enough in 50 days to support their livelihood? That horse is not going to have many opportunities to even run, and with ($1 million a day in purses), we’re going to have all the heavy-hitters coming in and the little breeder is going to be squeezed right out. They’re not going to be able to compete.”
NJSEA officials said they intend to card 2.5 state-bred races per day. Monmouth generally will race three days a week (Friday through Sunday) with up to 12 races a day.
Joe Jennings, who owns Walnford Stud, also is concerned about the potential impact on New Jersey-bred horses. He acknowledged the time has come for a radical change, but he’d be more comfortable if there were assurances it would continue beyond 2010.
Monmouth officials are counting on total pari-mutuel handle doubling from about $3 million a day last year to $6 million a day this year. Given current trends in racing, that could be a serious stretch.
“The biggest problem with it is it’s only for one year, and these out-of-state horses are going to be coming here to compete with New Jersey-bred horses,” Jennings said. “We have our Jersey-bred restricted races; you can run through your conditions then you have to run open. If they bring in all these good horses, how are we going to compete?
“If it was a more permanent thing, five or 10 years, you could buy better breeding stock and move forward with that. You can’t buy a $100,000 broodmare and breed to a $200,000 stallion and race for the purses we had last year. But if these purses were going to be a permanent thing, then you could improve your stock and be competitive. But a one-year deal, no one knows how it’s going to run.
“That’s the downside. The other side is I hope people do show up for this and it’s a success. But who knows? Everything’s so up in the air right now. It’s not just horse racing. The whole country’s upside down.”
Comprehensive plan needed
Jennings also said New Jersey racing officials must capitalize on the opportunity to ensure it works. He said the plan must be comprehensive and include expansion of off-track betting, for example.
“If we don’t do something, if we sit there and look at this short- term just for one year and don’t do anything to supplement our income as far as (off-track betting) in the state, then we’re going to be in bad trouble next year if this thing falls on its head,” Jennings said. “We have, I think, six OTB licenses that (groups other than the NJSEA own), and they won’t build because they don’t want the competition.”
Longtime New Jersey horseman John Forbes said the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, of which he is a board member, is concerned about small horsemen in the state, but said they have an opportunity to “step up to the plate.” He said all players must respond to what the industry wants in the form of quality racing and big fields that help handle grow.
Forbes noted there is an opportunity for more dates if Atlantic City, which this year will offer only six days of all-turf racing, commits to racing long-term. The New Jersey Racing Commission last year backed away from forcing the South Jersey track to offer 20 days of racing.
“(Atlantic City) is an example of the fact New Jersey racing isn’t dying—somehow it still exists,” Forbes said. “If they’re willing to step up to the plate and attach some decent purses to their turf racing, we’re hopeful they have a place in New Jersey. But they’re going to have to offer a product the public wants to bet on, and if they’re not a positive part of our solution to our problems, then they will have to go by the wayside.”
There has been no word on what ACRC plans to do outside of running six days from April 18-24 this year. Track officials weren’t involved in the Monmouth discussions.
Longtime New Jersey horseman J. Willard Thompson would prefer more racing dates in the state, but he believes the Monmouth experiment is worth a shot.
“I think (the changes at Monmouth) are positive,” Thompson said. “I don’t like losing the days, but if it works, then it will be fine. I like the purse structure; I think that’s great. I think Gov. (Chris) Christie is surrounding himself with some very brilliant people. Hopefully, they’re doing the right thing.
“I have six mares of my own, and I have about 35 horses in training at Monmouth. I have some nice clients who are very supportive of New Jersey racing, so I think I’m in pretty good shape.”
Racing gets a bad rap
Thompson also noted the contributions horse racing has made to the state. NJSEA horse racing is said to be losing money, but for the better part of 30 years, revenue from racing funded other projects to the detriment of racetrack capital improvements.
“A lot of people forget what racing has done,” Thompson said. “We had Giants Stadium built, and the Izod Center, and we had an aquarium built in Camden, and we also had a convention center built in Atlantic City. This was all done through the support of horse racing, and I think a lot of people have forgotten about that.”
New Jersey racing officials, including those with the NJSEA, have pushed for racetrack video lottery terminals. Opposition from the Atlantic City casino industry and its legislative supporters stymied those plans.
Some believe no matter the results of the Monmouth summer meet, horse racing will still need some sort of alternative revenue to build upon.
“We really need the slots,” Boyken said. “We have 32 casinos on our borders between Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York. Atlantic City swears people are still traveling from North Jersey down to Atlantic City. Their biggest problem was the slots at Meadowlands—they’re fighting it. (The casinos) have the political ear, so without the slots, I don’t think racing is going to survive.”
Purses for state-bred races will increase at Monmouth in 2010, so there is some incentive. A New Jersey-bred maiden special weight event, for example, will go for $75,000. Monmouth regularly cards Jersey-bred stakes.
“A lot of our Jersey-bred people have left in the past couple of years and have gone to Pennsylvania,” said Carolyn Sleeter of Sleeter Farm in South Jersey. “I just hope we have enough horses now to make Jersey-bred racing go, because if we have an open (race), that means they might (overfill) and they might not bring that race up for another week or two, or we’ll have to wait until it’s back in the book.
“You only have a short time (to race Jersey-bred horses); we stop our horses for the winter. All our horses just run for the (live New Jersey) meet. We’re dependent on the racing as well, not just breeding, because we’re also owners and trainers.”
“You have to look at the big picture,” said Swales, the TBANJ president. “While we all would love to keep as many days as possible—days especially to breeders are very important—you also have to consider where we’re at and where we’re heading. Sometimes you have to try some different things to see if it works.
“I can’t sit here and tell you it’s going to be the best thing in the world for breeders, nor can I say this is going to be the worst thing. We are excited; we’re running for some very large purses, probably the largest restricted purses in the country. There won’t be another state that can match what we’ll be running for, and that’s an exciting thing.”