03/10/2010 12:00AM

Balancing act at Monmouth


Monmouth Park's plan this year to cut its race dates in half and offer $1 million a day in purses seems simple enough: Offer the highest purses in the country, limit the opportunities to earn them, and then watch the horses and money pour in.

In reality, though, the New Jersey track, which is owned by the state, will face a number of complications both before and during its 50-day summer meet, from allocating limited stall space to satisfying the diverse needs of in-state and out-of-state horsemen, many of whom will face long lines to get into rich races. At the same time, Monmouth officials have to balance the interests of horsemen with the demands of the betting public, a task that often leaves both sides dissatisfied.

Monmouth Park officials acknowledged this week that the meet will present novel difficulties that may require sensitive handling, especially when dealing with local horsemen who have stocked their stables to fit into the competitive parameters of Monmouth's earlier meets, when purses were approximately $330,000 a day. However, the officials also contended that they have already devised some policies and practices to mitigate the potential impact from the problems.

Monmouth's first task will be to assign its 1,600 stalls to trainers. Officials believe that requests will vastly outnumber available stalls, and the trick will be to fill the backside with horses that fit into the track's rich racing program - i.e., divisions of Todd Pletcher's and Steve Asmussen's national operations - while also saving room for the horsemen that have been loyal to Monmouth Park in the past, according to John Forbes, the president of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

"We'll be looking to have competitive horses on the grounds, but we will certainly also take care of our Jersey people," Forbes said.

Robert Kulina, Monmouth's general manager, said that claiming races for the 50-day meet would bottom out at a price of $5,000, but that those races would offer purses of $30,000. To protect local horsemen, Kulina said, many of the bottom-level races will have conditions attached that restrict entries, for example, to horses that have not started for a claiming price of $12,500 or higher in the past year.

Not only will those restrictions allow local horsemen to compete, but the purse in the race will also reward successful trainers who will be facing far fewer opportunities to race this year while still maintaining the same amount of expenses. In addition, Monmouth plans to pay a portion of purse money back to last place, though the exact amount has yet to be determined, Kulina said.

"We have to give our local guys meaningful money back to at least offset some of their expenses," Kulina said.

Purses for the track's stakes have not yet been determined, but Kulina said that Monmouth has no plans to double or triple its stakes purses at the expense of the overnight program. Although several stakes that were previously held at the Meadowlands, such as the Meadowlands Cup and the Pegasus, will be moved to Monmouth this year, purses for the races will likely remain at the same levels as last year, Kulina said, and Monmouth's most high-profile race, the Haskell Invitational for 3-year-olds, will continue to be worth $1 million.

In one way, Monmouth has already negotiated one of its biggest hurdles, and that was getting the support of the state's breeding industry. In fact, Monmouth's promises to the breeding industry were an undeniable acknowledgement that farm owners often have outsized political influence, considering the entire registered foal crop in New Jersey in 2008 was 286.

To get the breeding industry's support, Monmouth officials committed to carding an average of 2 1/2 races restricted to New Jersey-bred horses every day - or approximately 175 races over the two Monmouth meets, compared with 229 races restricted to Jersey-breds last year. Although the raw numbers of races are down, the purses in the restricted races will be roughly equal to the purses offered in open races, meaning New Jersey-bred maidens will be running for $75,000, the highest purses in the country in any statebred program.

In addition, Monmouth - and by extension, the state of New Jersey - paid off loans that the state breeding program had taken out through the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association in order to cover shortfalls in its breeding program in 2008 and 2009. The state also guaranteed that the breeders' program will be able to fund up to $500,000 in bonuses for New Jersey-bred horses running in open company at out-of-state racetracks, a program that has been suspended since 2006 because of a lack of funds.

Supporters of the new Monmouth program, including Kulina and Forbes, have focused on the track's potential to thrill racing fans and bettors by providing full fields of top-class horses, but the commitment to the restricted races appears to contradict that philosophy. Kulina acknowledged that the restricted races would find little wagering support in the out-of-state market, but he said that Monmouth's plan to offer 12 races each day would give horseplayers ample opportunities to play open races.

"The fact of the matter is that every state has a statebred program, and you have to do things like that," Kulina said. "As a player, if you're not interested in those races, well, that's not all we're going to give you, and it's not all that you are going to get. We'll see to that."