05/20/2010 11:00PM

All eyes are on Monmouth


WASHINGTON - Experts can cite many possible reasons for the downturn in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing business, which has seen total wagering plunge from $14.7 billion in 2007 to $12.3 billion last year. But almost every racing fan would cite one simple explanation for this phenomenon. The sport's day-to-day product has never been worse.

Few fans like to bet six-horse fields of low-quality horses, and unappetizing small fields have become commonplace even at once-stalwart tracks such as Hollywood Park and Churchill Downs. Slot machine revenue hasn't helped; the pro​grams at Delaware Park and Philadelphia Park are as dismal as those at tracks without slots.

Desperate for a solution to their problems, people in the industry will be watching the developments in Oceanport, N.J., where Monmouth Park opens its season Saturday. Monmouth has made a bold and unprecedented change to its racing program. If its experiment succeeds, it may influence the operation of tracks from coast to coast.

Traditionally, Monmouth and the Meadowlands, the two New Jersey tracks, have operated from May through November, racing five days a week. Last year they operated a total of 141 Thoroughbred dates. This year, almost all of the available purse money will be put into 50 days of racing at Monmouth, with the track running only three days a week. Purses will average $1 million a day, surpassing Saratoga as the nation's richest racing program. One of the events on opening day is a race for older maidens with a purse of $75,000. (The same type of race would be worth $51,000 at Belmont Park, $41,000 at Hollywood, and $28,000 at Pimlico.)

The money will attract more horses, which will result in larger and more competitive fields, which will lead to more betting. Or at least that's the theory. Though Monmouth's plan sounds like a simple concept, it required two years of negotiations to become a reality, partly because of the always-contentious relations between racetracks and horsemen, and partly because of the special nature of racing in New Jersey, where the tracks are operated by a state authority.

Monmouth is a beautiful track with a grand history, but in recent years its sparse weekday crowds and dreary racing cards made the place look and feel forlorn. It was more than two years ago that Bob Kulina, the track's general manager, turned to Dennis Drazin, then the president of the horsemen's association, and said plaintively, "This isn't working." Kulina and Drazin had sometimes been adversaries in negotiations, but they shared a love of the game as well the recognition that the sport's status quo couldn't be maintained.

"If we didn't adjust our product," Kulina said, "we were going to go out of business."

The main sticking point was the issue that regularly divides management and horsemen. It is easy enough to raise purses by spreading the available money over fewer races, but horsemen almost always fight against cutbacks in racing dates. Drazin, too, had fought those battles, but he now recognized that there was no future in running long race meetings with a mediocre product.

He labored two years to forge a consensus within the industry.

"I went to the horsemen and the breeders," Drazin said, "and tried to create incentives for everybody." Monmouth would offer large purses for horses as cheap as $5,000 claimers, giving small stables a shot at a big payday. Plenty of money would go into purses for races limited to New Jersey-breds, so the state's breeders would benefit. The purse structure for individual races would pay everybody in the field - with $1,500 going to the last-place finisher -- and would thus spread the wealth instead of letting a few powerful stables take all the spoils.

The state and the Atlantic City casino industry were players in the negotiations as well. The casinos have been providing a $30 million annual supplement to racetrack purses in exchange for concessions from the state -- a deal that expires this year. New Jersey guaranteed additional funds to make possible the offer of $50 million in purses over 50 days. But the cash-strapped state government is in no position to keep propping up a failing industry. Monmouth's 2010 season is a test to prove that horse racing is still a viable business. Kulina said: "If we're going to go after future funding, we have to be able to say, 'We're worth saving.' "

The high purses will surely attract horses from all over the mid-Atlantic region, but nobody can say for certain that the changes at Monmouth will pay off in terms of substantially increased business. Nor has anyone in the industry defined a benchmark of success. Last year betting at Monmouth (from all sources, on- and off-track) averaged $3.1 million per day. Saratoga, which then offered the highest purses in the United States, averaged $14.3 million. Monmouth won't reach that stratospheric level, but if it doubles its daily business and averages more than $6 million, its results would surely be considered a success.

"We're not only hoping it works for us," Kulina said. "We're hoping it works for the sport." If Monmouth does have a spectacular season, it would be a model for states. The sport now has too many tracks running too many races with too few horses to fill them, yet in many jurisdictions the horsemen still balk at significant cutbacks in racing dates. Monmouth could show that there is a viable alternative to the dismal status quo.

2010, The Washington Post