Every summer race fans flock to the cozy confines of Saratoga and to Delmar, the seaside track north of San Diego. In the spring and fall in Kentucky, Keeneland is the place to be. Those race meets are truly special events.
In late May Monmouth Park joined the parade. The postcard-pretty racetrack a short ride from the northern New Jersey shore launched an unprecedented $ 1 million a day summer racing bonanza. It's a Friday-Saturday-Sunday calendar with three holidays tossed in, until September 6.
You can just about smell the ocean breeze from the grandstand of this venerable racetrack that opened its doors in 1870. On opening day 2010 a bustling crowd of nearly 18,000 folks turned out, wagering $9.3 million, the largest handle ever at Monmouth for a non-Haskell race day. They bet $16.4 million there over the first two days.
"To be up those kind of numbers that we are in this economy and with what is happening in racing around the country, it's just amazing," related Bob Kulina, Monmouth's vice president and general manager. "With the larger fields, we're able to offer value. That's what horse players want."
Memorial Day weekend saw 38,543 patrons roll through the turnstiles-- a 15.5 percent increase from a year ago. The track's total handle soared 122 percent with $24,912,191 wagered over the three-day period.
"If you can carry it through Memorial Day weekend, with so much else to do, it's a good sign for the meet," noted Kulina. "I've been doing this long enough, and those numbers are like a flashback in terms of attendance. That's what we got 10 or 15 years ago for this weekend. Just walking around, the energy and enthusiasm you can see it and feel it."
Fewer Dates the Key
How did they pull it off? Fewer dates translate into bigger purses, bigger fields, much better horses, big name jockeys and trainers, and bigger payouts to happier bettors.
"It's responding to what the customer is looking for: quality horses and decent-size fields," said John Forbes, longtime trainer and current president of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.
"We had to do something dramatic to survive. In this state, the casino industry wants us to die. Still, racing has to put on a good show. We're in the entertainment business. We have a long history and tradition, but at the end of the day we sell bets."
Without slots, at Monmouth the focus is squarely on racing.
Star power rules. John Valazquez and Garrett Gomez are in residence. The nation's premiere jockey, Gomez bought a place and says he'll spend 90 percent of his time at the Jersey shore. Top trainers from California, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Canada will race at Monmouth this year. That doesn't include New Yorkers Todd Pletcher, Tom Albertrani, Rick Dutrow and Kiaran McLaughlin. They all have the maximum 36 stalls and return with an upgraded string of runners.
Future of Racing?
Monmouth's bold experiment could be the future of horseracing, says Rick Abbott, former longtime member and chairman of the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission. Abbott is also a horseman who operates Charlton Bloodstock in Cochranville, Pa., with his wife, Dixie and is a newly elected board member of the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association.
"Let's face it, there is an overproduction of horses, but a limited number of them are ready to race with owners that are paying the training bills," Abbott acknowledged. "Monmouth is particularly set up for this mega-meet. People coming to the shore are looking for something to try. It looks like a way to bring people back to horse racing."
In the first stakes race of the season, Congressional Page ran down the front-runners nearing the wire to win the $100,000 Decathlon Stakes. Carlos Marquez Jr. was aboard for Fair Hill trainer Michael Trombetta as Congressional Page beat Mr. Fantasy by 3/4 length over six-furlongs.
"It was a great way to kick off the race meet," said Trombetta. "The race fans turned out in a big way. Everyone knows the racing business model is broken. With the success here perhaps other tracks might change what they are doing.''
Monmouth Park's long and storied history dates back to July 30, 1870 when the track opened, just three miles from the ocean resort of Long Branch. Originally, it was an effort to increase summer trade for once bustling shore communities. Its inaugural five-day meet attracted national fanfare and top-flight racing.
However, just three years after the first Monmouth Park was opened, financial difficulties forced the track to close. Racing returned under a syndicate of George and Pierre Lorillard, D.D. Withers, G.P. Wetmore and James Gordon Bennett, who spent four years restoring the grounds and rebuilding the grandstand and in 1882, the rebuilt Monmouth Park opened its gates. Due to its overwhelming popularity, a new racecourse was built adjacent to the existing track, and in 1890 the second Monmouth Park opened.
But the gates were not open for long. In 1891, the Monmouth Park meet was moved to Jerome Park and Morris Park while state legislation tried to suppress pari-mutuel wagering. The state banned wagering on horses in 1894 and the track was closed and the land sold. Racing would not return for over 50 years.
Following the legalizing of pari-mutuel wagering, the track opened for a third time on June 19, 1946, after a 53-year hiatus. Opening day attracted 18,724 in attendance, and Monmouth Park returned to a level of glory and prestige that had only been a memory.
Monmouth's 2010 mega-meet will become the world's richest thoroughbred venue. The $1 million daily prize money is $300,000 more than the most elite American track, Saratoga Springs, offers. Horses are shipping into Monmouth from all over the U.S., most notably from tracks in New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland, along with the occasional horse from Churchill Downs and tracks in California. The horses are lured by the highest purse distribution in the nation, with first-time allowance horses running for $80,000 and maidens running for $75,000.
Every horse is paid a minimum of $1,500 just for showing up, no matter where he finishes. So running a horse twice a month pays the trainer and vet bills for a month. Owner Rick Porter says he's got a trio of horses that will compete in lower grade stakes races at Monmouth this summer.
"Monmouth has made a great decision," Porter said. "You get a better racing product, better attendance and a terrific response from bettors on their simulcast. I'm racing in New York, at Philadelphia Park, Delaware Park and a bit in Maryland. That's way too much competition. I'm running my dirt horses on grass to keep them in shape."
A big chunk of the $50 million in purses up for grabs this summer comes from the final allotment of the three-year, $90 million purse subsidy from Atlantic City casinos, split equally between the thoroughbred and Standardbred industries. In 2011 the purse supplements from the Atlantic City casinos will not be available and for the purses to remain at a high level the state legislators must be willing to help.
So there is a lot riding on the successful meet this summer.
"Everybody knows we don't have the funding for purses next year," Kulina acknowledged. "We're going to have to prove worthy of funding and continuing this industry."
Ties are different
Nationwide there is way too much racing going on -- diluting the product. In New York and Maryland the situation is particularly grim. The years grind forward and their solution remains slot machine jackpots. But while slots have provided some capital improvements, jump-started breeding programs and pumped up purses at Philadelphia Park and Penn National, most racing days seem lifeless and sometimes depressing.
The official launch of summer at the Jersey shore, Memorial Day weekend saw sizeable crowds turning up. On Saturday and Sunday there was a Hot Dog Showdown and a beerfest where patrons could sample ten different beers for ten dollars with concerts both days. The Jersey Shore Jazz & Blues Festival found a new home at Monmouth the first weekend of June.
In Memorial Day's featured race, Gypsy Warning provided the crowd with plenty of drama when she caught favored Maram in the final stride in the $150,000 Eatontown Stakes (Gr-III). Fair Hill's Graham Motion trains the South African-bred Gypsy Warning who poked a nose in front at the wire in a head-bobbing finish over Maram, winner of the 2008 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.
Monmouth's signature race is the $1 million Haskell Stakes (Aug., 1), the richest invitational thoroughbred race in North America. Derby winner Super Saver and Preaknesss champion Looking at Lucky and Belmont champ Drosselmeyer all could compete.
Monmouth has hitched its wagon to top-notch horses, rather than slot machines. In doing so it's drawn up the blueprint for revitalizing racing. The horsemen and racing officials developed a plan to funnel the lion's share of purse money into a super meet that would attract full fields with quality horses and elite trainers that in turn would lure bettors from around the country.
The big question is whether other racetracks will pull their heads out of the sand and follow. Not if they've got slots, says Porter.
"The track owners don't give a damn, they don't listen to the owners, their main focus is slots," Porter said. "They're making hundreds of millions of dollars off slots. The owners and the bettors should be the most powerful entities in racing. Without the owners' horses there is no product. Without the bettors there are no purses. There are a lot of dissatisfied owners. They've had enough. I've been saying this for years-- we need a commissioner to regulate the sport."
State law mandates that Philadelphia Park race 200 days a year unless the horsemen agree to shorten the schedule. Chester County horseman Rick Abbott suggests a coordinated racing program at Delaware Park, Monmouth Park and Philadelphia Park might be the better way to go.
"If Philadelphia Park closed for part of the summer they could start their turf racing earlier in the year then give the turf a rest through part of the summer and race later into the fall," Abbott related. "Laurel (Park in Maryland) has experienced great success doing it this way. I would love to see a coordinated schedule between those three tracks."