by Tom LaMarra and Linda Dougherty
Racing officials have expressed little hope a conflict between regulators and horsemen can be resolved in time to salvage the plan for Monmouth Park to become the first New Jersey racetrack to host a Breeders' Cup.
The situation comes at an improbable time given the gung-ho effort by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority to lobby and prepare for the 2007 World Thoroughbred Championships. In addition, relations between the NJSEA, which operates Monmouth and Meadowlands, and the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association appear the best they've been for some time.
The New Jersey Racing Commission and New Jersey THA, however, have been at odds for more than a year. The commission has accused the horsemen's group of fiscal mismanagement; the THA and others say the charges are politically motivated. In any event, the dispute has threatened Monmouth's host status for the Cup.
When a memorandum of understanding was signed last summer, Breeders' Cup required the situation be resolved by Dec. 31, 2004. The parties received an extension through April 9. A judge, however, has scheduled a court hearing on the matter for Oct. 24, well past the deadline.
"I agree that this issue between the New Jersey THA and the commission should not be joined with the Breeders' Cup, but the Breeders' Cup insists on tying it together," said Dennis Drazin, counsel for the horsemen's group. "I think it's terrible for New Jersey. I think the commission position is wrong, but the commission is unwilling to budge. I do not see any resolution before April 9."
"The current situation is that the matter has been scheduled for court," said Frank Zanzuccki, executive director of the racing commission. "The date has been set by a judge in late October, and it will be litigated as a result of the New Jersey THA rejection of our proposal (on March 23).
"This is a routine regulatory matter and it is separate and apart from the Breeders' Cup. I don't see how they are connected whatsoever. We will communicate that to the Breeders' Cup committee (the week of March 28), as will the New Jersey THA and the NJSEA."
Attorney Alan Foreman, a board member of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and chief executive officer of the THA, which has other affiliates in the Mid-Atlantic region, said all the parties understood the parameters set last year. When asked if he was helping facilitate a resolution, he said he has remained on the periphery given the circumstances.
"I've taken the position Breeders' Cup should not go into New Jersey under the current circumstances," Foreman said. "Breeders' Cup shouldn't go into a venue where these type of shenanigans are going on."
Foreman said the situation is particularly difficult because the New Jersey THA was the first horsemen's group to join the NTRA, and it worked with the NJSEA to lobby for the Breeders' Cup. NJSEA officials, including chief executive officer George Zoffinger, attended last year's Breeders' Cup at Lone Star Park and indicated to The Blood-Horse
they were totally committed to hosting the event at Monmouth.
In fact, Bruce Garland, who announced his retirement as senior vice president of racing for the NJSEA, has continued to stay on in an advisory capacity with a focus on the Breeders' Cup effort.
The NJSEA has been asked to help facilitate a resolution, "but we haven't put the onus on them, per se," Breeders' Cup president D.G. Van Clief Jr. said. "We've advised all parties we need to see a resolution in some satisfactory form before we can make some sort of commitment."
An effort already is under way to line up a potential replacement for 2007.
The dispute between the racing commission and horsemen's group apparently is political in nature. Among the issues is the use of political action committee funds by the New Jersey THA, as well as its push to get horsemen's representation on the racing commission.
"There is no horsemen's organization in the country being harassed and micromanaged by a racing commission like this one is," Foreman said.
The NJSEA tracks had left the NTRA earlier in this decade as part of a mass defection but later rejoined. One of the carrots was a chance to host a Breeders' Cup. More than 20 years ago, the NJSEA offered Meadowlands as a possible host for the first Cup, held in 1984 at Hollywood Park in California.
Optimism for New Jersey Thoroughbred racing has been high given the long-term agreement on racing dates and other matters between the NJSEA and New Jersey THA, as well as a deal with casinos to pump $86 million into purses over the next several years. The industry was hit hard earlier this decade by the closure and demolition of Garden State Park, as well the loss of a regular meet at Atlantic City Race Course.
The NJSEA has viewed a Monmouth Breeders' Cup as a catalyst for growth in the racing industry.