05/19/2010 11:00PM

Gomez follows loot to Monmouth


OCEANPORT, N.J. -- Garrett Gomez and agent Ron Anderson were keenly interested when news of the 50-day, $50 million summer meet at Monmouth Park first circulated over the winter.

The more they explored the concept, the more excited they became.

"My agent had to feel things out," said Gomez, the nation's leading money-winning rider for a fourth straight year in 2009. "We had to make sure this was actually going down. Once we found out it was going to happen, we started to tell people we were coming this way."

Gomez and John Velazquez, a pair of Eclipse Award winners, are the two biggest names joining the Monmouth jockey colony.

Gomez immediately found himself in high demand, with mounts in 12 of the 13 races on the opening day card.

The fact that Monmouth is running only three days a week for most of the summer was initially a potential deal-breaker for Gomez.

"It was right on the border," he said. "Three is good, but four would be better. It's just not something we're used to. We're used to five days a week."

Now that he's here, Gomez will find geography can work to his advantage. He can pick up mounts at other tracks in the region, like Belmont Park, on days when Monmouth is dark. And there will be the out-of-town calls for stakes horses across the country.

"I'll be riding other places here and there," Gomez said. "Coming here was not just about money. It's horses. You want to ride good horses. Usually, the money attracts the good horses."

Money a mixed blessing

The $1 million a day in average purse money at Monmouth lured high-profile stables like Nick Zito's and Steve Asmussen's.

Where does that leave the bread-and-butter outfits that supported the meet, and New Jersey racing, all these years?

In a precarious situation. It will be harder to win races this year with the big-stable competition on only a three-day schedule.

On the other hand, the rising financial tide could lift many ships. You don't have to win a lot of races when low-end $5,000 claimers run for $30,000 and maiden special weights are worth $75,000.

"I think it's going to help me," said Tim Kelly, who has been training at Monmouth for 24 years. "It's going to bring me the better quality stock that we'll have to get, or we won't be able to survive. It's either going to be feast or famine. It's going to help me or kill me.

"It's going to make racing more difficult, but the big guys can't win them all."

Kelly takes a realistic approach. At these purse levels, just hitting the board can be lucrative.

"If you can get a piece of these big pots, it's not a bad thing," Kelly said.

Monmouth further cushioned the blow by paying every starter in every race at least $1,500. Even when they lose, nobody goes home empty-handed.

"An owner can run a horse twice a month and he'll get $3,000," Kelly said. "He can pay his bills, he doesn't go in a hole. I love that, and it's something that's long overdue."

In a further effort to help the local horsemen, Monmouth will average 2.5 races a day for New Jersey-bred horses. That could work well for Kelly, who has eight New Jersey-breds in his 17-horse stable.

John Forbes has won five Monmouth training titles and is president of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. In that role, Forbes has gotten a cross section of reactions to the changes.

"It's been mixed," Forbes said. "I think everyone is a little anxious about how strong the competition will be. We had less time to prepare for this than we would have liked. I'd say that the old-line horsemen who love Monmouth Park so much are willing to do what it takes to perpetuate this."

Full house on backstretch

Allocating the 1,600 stalls on the Monmouth backstretch this year was the most difficult challenge Mike Dempsey has faced as the track's racing secretary.

"We had interest from all parts of the country," Dempsey said. "We had a good buzz, and a lot of stall applications."

The goal was to avoid excluding stables that had supported Monmouth in the past at the expense of newcomers.

It turned into a very tight squeeze.

"I had to trim from everyone," Dempsey said. "But I was able to get 20 new trainers in here who would get stalls at any track in America."

To accommodate those outfits, Dempsey reduced the maximum number of stalls for any one trainer from 40 to 36.

Dempsey is most excited about having a California contingent of Robert Hess, Jr., Michael Machowsky, Mike Mitchell and Peter Miller on hand for the first time.

"I expect that they all sent active horses," Dempsey said. "I don't think they sent horses 3,000 miles to just train."