02/18/2005 1:00AM

Jersey mission: Keep racing riding high

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NJSEA
Dennis Dowd was promoted from vice president of offtrack wagering to senior vice president of racing of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority with the retirement of Bruce Garland on Feb. 2.

The revamped management of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority will mark a change in style more than substance at the tracks it operates, Monmouth Park and The Meadowlands Racetrack.

With the retirement earlier this month of Bruce Garland, the senior executive vice president of the authority, a new management team takes over at a high point in New Jersey racing. Dennis Dowd, the new senior vice president of racing, and Chris McErlean, vice president of racing operations for both tracks, are now responsible for guiding New Jersey racing through the next few years, which will include the Breeders' Cup at Monmouth in 2007.

"It's kind of our job to not screw it up," said Dowd. "We don't want to reinvent the wheel. It's a matter of how you do things and the energy that you bring to the table."

Garland, 55, stepped down Feb. 2, after a 30-year career in public service. Garland joined The Meadowlands in 1991 as general manager of the Standardbred meet. He took charge of the authority's entire racing operation, including Monmouth, in 1998.

Dowd, 57, who was the vice president of offtrack wagering, moved up to the top slot when Garland retired. McErlean moved up from his slot as the general manager of The Meadowlands.

McErlean, 37, will deal mostly with contracts for products and services - tote companies, mutuel unions, concessionaires - common to both tracks.

"I'll have more involvement with business unit issues between the two tracks," said McErlean. "I will physically be more at Monmouth than I have in the past while still being responsible for Standardbred racing at The Meadowlands."

Bob Kulina, vice president of Thoroughbred racing, will now devote his time almost exclusively to Monmouth. He will have a diminished role in The Meadowlands fall Thoroughbred meet.

Dowd takes over after one of the most extraordinary years in New Jersey racing. In addition to the Breeders' Cup announcement, the industry secured a four-year, $86-million purse enhancement from the Atlantic City casinos. The purse enhancement, in turn, helped the authority craft a four-year pact with the Thoroughbred and harness horsemen to guarantee increased purses and a set racing calendar. Offtrack betting and account wagering were put in place last year.

The year also saw the resignation of Gov. Jim McGreevey, which ended the process of entertaining lease proposals for the two tracks. Acting Gov. Richard Codey, a close friend and political ally of Dowd, said he wants the state to remain the owner and operator of both facilities.

"Now that we are no longer focused on the leasing business, we are back focused on the operating business," said Dowd. "If you are selling an asset, you treat it one way. Now that we've decided to keep them, we have to focus on long-range and strategic planning. We intend to be here for the long haul."

Some of the biggest challenges facing Dowd center on Monmouth and the upcoming Breeders' Cup.

"The preparation at Monmouth for the Breeders' Cup will be very important," said Dowd. "We have to do a new turf course, and there are physical renovations that have to be done to make sure it is the grand old lady it should be come Breeders' Cup Day."

Dowd said he also plans to expand the state's nascent Internet wagering system, which has averaged $90,000 a day in handle since its debut on Breeders' Cup day. The locations of the first OTB facilities have to be determined, and a decision must be made on whether to pursue slots at the racetracks.

Dowd is an attorney whose management experience has been primarily at harness tracks in New Jersey, New York, and Maryland. He said he wants to improve communication between management and horsemen to make the horsemen "more comfortable with us" and avoid the disputes of the past.

"We've got to get back to the backstretch and talk to them," Dowd said.

Dennis Drazin, legislative counsel for the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, credited the authority's former management team with improving relations with horsemen and said he hopes progress between the groups continues.

"We look forward to a smooth transition, and our dealings with Dennis Dowd thus far have been encouraging," he said.

As for the fans, Dowd said he intends to keep a close eye on their needs.

"We have to be responsive to those," said Dowd. "This is kind of easy stuff to do if you pay attention to it and you like it as I do. On my day off, I like to go to the track."