As Suffolk Downs readies to open for its six days of live racing this year, track officials were hard hit with the news that horses stabled at Monmouth Park will not be allowed to return to the stable area there if they are shipped out to compete in Boston.
Officials of The New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which operates Monmouth under the aegis of Darby Development LLC, called a meeting with the horsemen the morning of June 16 and issued the ban on shippers. Monmouth-based horsemen may request permission to compete in stakes events or races restricted to Massachusetts-breds at Suffolk Downs.
"I root for Monmouth Park and have great respect for its management. Things must be dire there for them to take such a punitive, short-sighted measure," said Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer of Suffolk Downs, which opens for racing July 8.
"It's very simple. There are not enough horses for all of the races going on. We at Monmouth are struggling mightily to fill our three day (per week) cards, and that's the long and short of it," said Monmouth Park president Bob Kulina, who added there are just less than 1,000 horses currently stabled on the Monmouth backside that has stalls for 1,600.
Monmouth, which is in the midst of its 50-day season, does not have the benefit of any revenue from New Jersey casinos, and is adversely affected by increased competition from the other tracks in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions that can offer purses fueled by expanded gaming profits.
The Race Horse Development Fund in Massachusetts is supplied by a percentage of revenue from the state's slot machine facility and license fees, and the pool of money accrued allows Suffolk Downs to offer an average daily purse distribution of around $500,000. Kulina said that Monmouth this year is distributing $14 million over its 50 days, for an average payout to horsemen of $280,000 per day.
Monmouth's ban is similar to the one its officials instituted last August against horsemen competing at Suffolk Downs for the four days remaining in the 2016 six-day meet. In that action, a fine of $1,000 per horse was imposed on anyone attempting to re-enter the stable area after shipping to Boston. The move caused an acrimonious dispute between the New Jersey horsemen and Monmouth officials.
According to Equibase, about 65 horses from Monmouth, excluding those who were vanned straight from New Jersey farms, were entered last year at Suffolk's six-day meet. Four of the top 10 trainers in the final standings—Bobby DiBona, Derek Ryan, Jorge Navarro, and Joe Orseno—were based at Monmouth.
After the affected horsemen refused to pay the fines last year, an anonymous donor ended the standoff by writing a check for $60,000, with the stipulation that the money be donated to Second Call, the agency that administers New Jersey's Thoroughbred aftercare program.
The point of contention between the managements of Monmouth Park and Suffolk Downs remains the same this year: reciprocity. Since there is no stabling or training available on the property, there are no Suffolk-based horses available to ship to and support the cards at Monmouth.
The renewed battle between Monmouth and Suffolk over the entry box leaves horsemen caught in the crossfire once again.
"The reaction from the horsemen here is that a lot of them support us and some others don't," said Kulina.
"I got caught in the middle last year and now I'm stuck right back there this year," said one prominent Monmouth-based trainer, who agreed to comment anonymously for fear of reprisal. "I've got horses standing in stalls here because their races don't go. They need to run. I plan to send some to Suffolk."
The shipping ban instituted June 16 is evidently unique to Suffolk Downs, as Monmouth's policy regarding other tracks requests that horsemen coordinate with the racing office before entering elsewhere and shipping out.
"There are just not enough horses. There is a lack of inventory everywhere. We're fighting over minutia when the issue is the big picture in the industry," Kulina said.
Suffolk will run July 8-9, Aug. 5-6, and September 2-3 this season and there is the possibility of adding two days in October, provided there are sufficient funds in the RHDF to be allocated by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. Suffolk also plans to run a short meet in 2018.
"We'll persevere," Tuttle said.