Monmouth shows gains, but not without complications
by Linda Dougherty
Monmouth Park closed out its 2017 season September 10 with across-the-board gains in attendance and handle for the pared-down 50-day meet, which began May 13.
According to track officials, on-track wagering averaged $424,556, a 7.9 percent increase over last year’s average, when the track ran 57 days. Simulcast handle showed a slight increase to average $3,050,257, which represents .4 percent more than last year’s average. Attendance was up 7.4 percent, with an average of 9,234 fans daily.
Although the $1 million Haskell Invitational didn’t lure any of the winners of the Triple Crown races, it did draw a contentious field. The July 31 card resulted in on-track handle of $2,203,851, up 24 percent from 2016, while off-track wagering totaled $12,809,126, a seven percent increase.
The numbers were encouraging for track management, but came at the expense of racing days and gross purses. Last year, total purses were just under $17.5 million for 57 days, while this year they were about $15.5 million, averaging about $309,000 daily. This represents a fairly steep decline in purse money since 2011, when the Oceanport track ran 77 days and distributed $32.5 million in purses, the final year that it received a $17 million purse subsidy from the Atlantic City casinos.
The contraction of racing dates also takes Monmouth back in time to the 1950’s and early 60’s, when it ran short meets of less than 50 days in the summer as part of a New Jersey racing circuit with Garden State Park and Atlantic City, both of which are now gone, as well as Maryland.
“This year’s numbers are indicative that people continue to support racing in New Jersey,” said Dennis Drazin, Chairman and CEO of Darby Development LLC, operators of the racetrack for the last six years.
Drazin cited several reasons that he believes helped the track show positive results in 2017.
“We were able to make more races go with the support from our horsemen,” said Drazin. “And the team at Monmouth Park did a great job marketing the sport. The food and beverage promotions, like the food truck festivals, were very popular and brought more people out to the track. And the new food stands inside the building – Max’s Hot Dogs, Lighthouse ice cream, Kentucky Ale – were also very popular.”
Drazin warned, however, that Monmouth Park still operated at a distinct disadvantage to tracks in neighboring states like Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware and Maryland, all of which are able to boost purses thanks to casino gaming revenue.
“Nevertheless, fans embrace our product, our determination has never wavered, and people continue to make Monmouth Park one of the top destinations in the state,” he said.
To that end, Monmouth Park continues to pursue alternative revenue streams, including video lottery terminals and internet gambling cafes, the latter of which would run in conjunction with an Atlantic City casino.
Track management is also hoping that sports betting is legalized. A total of 19 states recently joined West Virginia in a filing that supports New Jersey in its case to legalize sports betting within its borders in front of the U. S. Supreme Court. In June, the Supreme Court agreed to hear New Jersey’s challenge to the federal ban on sports wagering and betting. The case is pitting several states, law enforcement groups and gambling advocates against college and professional sports leagues.
“We’re cautiously optimistic for a favorable outcome when the Supreme Court delivers a final verdict on our more than five-year fight to bring sports betting to New Jersey,” said Drazin.
While the New Jersey foal crop continues to shrink, the track was able to put together a stellar 12-race card for New Jersey Thoroughbred Festival Day August 27, which attracted nearly 11,000 patrons and resulted in total handle of more than $4.6 million.
But not all horsemen thought the meet was a rousing success.
“They did fill races, although purses were down and there was no money for trainer-owner bonuses,” said trainer Jeanne Vuyosevich, who had two horses make a total of 10 starts at the meeting. “There definitely weren’t enough racing days – if your race didn’t go, it might be three weeks until the next one. It made trainers run horses in races they really didn’t belong, or to run them in anything just to run. There were lots of empty stalls and empty barns. It seemed like the attendance draw was for the beer garden and food truck wars. It really was very sad, as it totally affects the breeding and layup farms.”
Jorge Navarro was the meet’s leading trainer, saddling 65 winners, 38 more winners than runnerup Jason Servis. It was Navarro’s record-tying fifth consecutive title and his win total was a Monmouth Park record.
But Navarro’s meet ended on a down note, when a profane video emerged of him and owner Randal Gindi at Monmouth August 4, cheering home a horse racing at Gulfstream trained by Navarro’s brother. “That’s the juice man,” says Gindi.
“We (expletive) everyone,” agrees Navarro.
As a result, the stewards slapped Navarro with a $5,000 fine for “conduct detrimental to racing” and recommended that the state Racing Commission up that to $10,000 — and levy a $20,000 fine on Gindi — when it considers the matter September 20.
Nik Juarez, who won 75 races, was the meet’s leading rider, while Hector Diaz Jr., who arrived in New Jersey in June, was the leading apprentice with 30 winners, good for fifth in the overall standings.
“I came here to work hard seven days a week, and it paid off,” said Juarez. “I’m very thankful. I’m going to strike while the iron is hot and take it to the next level, and I’m moving my tack to Belmont Park for two months now, and then Gulfstream Park.”
Agent Ron Anderson, who also handles Joel Rosario, is taking Juarez’s book for the Belmont Fall Meet.
The season’s top owner was John J. Brunetti’s Red Oak Stable, which recorded 13 races. Brunetti, who was present in the winner’s circle for a short ceremony on closing day, said, “I’ve had a stable here for many, many years. I think all fans of the sport appreciate the racing at Monmouth Park, and I want to congratulate all the people who made it possible for us to be the leading owner.”
The Red Oak bred-and-owned Bal Harbour, a son of First Samurai, captured the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth September 2 for trainer Todd Pletcher. Greg Sacco handles the Red Oak horses that are stabled at Monmouth.