Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO

NJ Racing Officials Defend Monmouth Schedule

Kulina, Forbes claim the schedule will provide better quality racing for bettors.

When Monmouth Park officials announced they would be slashing the New Jersey track’s race schedule nearly in half in order to provide larger purses and create better quality racing for bettors, they were bombarded by negative editorial opinions and commentaries suggesting the change had signaled the death of the local industry.

But Bob Kulina, vice president and general manager of Monmouth, and John Forbes, president of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, beg to differ.

“The last time I checked, it wasn’t dying,” said Forbes during a March 9 National Thoroughbred Racing Association teleconference, noting how Monmouth conducted a 141-day meet last year with purses of more than $300,000 a day, had large summer crowds, and hosted the Breeders’ Cup in 2007.

While it came as a shock when Monmouth officials announced March 9 that the track would this year run a reduced 50-day meet from May to September with purses boosted to $1 million per day, Forbes and Kulina claim the move may actually save the local industry, which in its current state cannot begin to compete with neighboring states that benefit from the revenues of casino gaming.

“What we have to face is competition from neighboring states whose purses are augmented by casino gaming, and we have a casino industry that wants us to disappear,” said Forbes. “One of the things we recognize is that with or without slot revenue, racing has to change. We’ve heard from the customer, and we’ve gone recently from a local sport to a national sport with full card simulcasting.

“The customer has spoken—he wants quality racing, larger fields, and we think it’s time that someone stepped up and gave the customer in racing what he’s looking for. This isn’t a survival issue; it’s an issue of responding of what we all know is most important—quality racing—and that’s what we hope to provide. We don’t use tax dollars to support our game; the casinos don’t give us a handout. We have to sign an agreement with the casinos not to go after slots; they buy us off. So it’s a struggle, but we felt we needed to get to the heart of the matter.”

Kulina said the new purse schedule at Monmouth would include bottom level claiming races ranging from $5,000-$30,000; maiden special weight races at $75,000-$90,000; and overnight stakes at $100,000. The major stakes races—such as the $1 million Haskell Invitational (gr. I)—would stay at the same level they were last year.

With the fall meeting at the Meadowlands being eliminated, the Meadowlands Cup (gr. II) would be moved to Monmouth, and the date of the Pegasus Stakes (gr. III) would be moved to serve as a prep race for the Haskell. Meadowland’s Violet and Cliffhanger Stakes (both gr. III) will be put on hold for 2010.

Eliminating Meadowlands' fall meet is a one-year experiment, and Kulina said he plans to assess the decision over the summer in order to decide what will happen in the future.

An agreement has been made with New Jersey breeders to run two and a half New Jersey-bred programs a day, with the state-bred maiden special worth $75,000.

“They’ll have the corresponding purses, and the New Jersey-breds will get a 20% bonus if they finish 1-2-3 in open races,” said Kulina. “This is a wonderful thing for the New Jersey breeders, and I think this is a win-win proposition for everybody. We’re making their rewards program whole and they are very happy. They’re going to have funding for an out-of-state New Jersey-bred program for the rest of the year. So we think we have most the issues resolved.”

Kulina said the goal for Monmouth’s 2010 season is to consistently have 8- to 10-horse fields.

“We’re working on a meaningful payback to horses that finish outside the money,” he explained. “We think it’s important that owners are rewarded for participation in fields. We’re trying to spread some of the money around, not only to the small owners, but to everybody, because it’s a very costly game. So we’re doing some different things, and we’re cautiously optimistic that this is a model that will work. No matter what level the race is, if it’s competitive, it’s a good race.”

Kulina said he realized that by cutting 50% of its race dates, Monmouth will have to increase the handle on its existing races by 50% just to break even on revenue.

“That is the gamble, but we are adding two to three races every day that we race. Our signal will be stronger so people in other parts of the country will look at it. We made very soft projections, and we reduced the days that are extremely weak, so we’re hoping that if we offer one of the best products in the market, the consumer will respond to it.”

One of the many concerns with the new schedule is how it will affect the smaller horsemen in the state. While Forbes said he is apprehensive of how those players will deal with the situation, he’s more concentrated on looking at the future of the sport.

“We’re surrounded by five states that have casino gambling and slot revenue and we sit in the middle of that,” he said. “Our sense was that over the next five years we would be dying a slow death with the reduction of days to try and keep our purse levels competitive.

“If this is the death for the small horsemen, it’s because he doesn’t have the kind of horse that America wants to bet on,” Forbes continued. “But I don’t think it’s the death…I think it’s an opportunity for our horsemen to recognize that not to upgrade, not to improve the product for the consumer is a prescription to eventually be eliminated from the mix here in the Midlantic. We’re very concerned about our small horsemen, but we also want them to step up to the plate. If they can’t recognize that poor racing with horses that aren’t competitive is itself a death then none of us are responding to what the industry wants.”

Forbes made a reference to the boutique track Atlantic City, which offers a handful of turf racing dates each year, and has somehow remained a popular local venue in spite of not even having a functioning tote board.

“(Atlantic City) is an example of the fact New Jersey racing isn’t dying—somehow it still exists,” he 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. They have to recognize that what New Jersey has done is dramatic, with intent, and its back to the old adage if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”