07/11/2010 11:00PM

Larger purses adding quality at Monmouth


NEW YORK - It may seem hard to believe, but when Sunday's racing was over, 2010's "great experiment" at Monmouth Park was almost at the half-way point. Sunday was card No. 24 at the "Elite Race Meet" at Monmouth, where a drastic reduction in racing dates to a three-day-a-week schedule this year enabled the track to offer a daily purse distribution that blows every other U.S. track out of the water.

With $5,000 claimers running for $30,000 purses, entry-level allowance horses running for $80,000 pots, and big fields in nearly every race, Monmouth has created an undeniable buzz. With a varied product and a player-friendly betting menu, horseplayers might be shortchanging themselves if they don't pay as much attention to Monmouth as they do to the New York and Southern California circuits that traditionally dominate. It's no surprise that attendance and handle are way up.

But what about the quality of racing at Monmouth? Throwing a ton of money at something doesn't guarantee anything. Is the racing at Monmouth worth this attention? Is it any good?

Measuring the quality of racing anywhere is a subjective exercise. The varying methods of doing so can equal the number of people inclined to do it. For me, a good way to measure the level of racing at a given track is to determine how much of a track's product is devoted to cheap racing. After all, it is just basic math that the less cheap racing there is at a track, the more room there is for quality racing. Conversely, the more cheap racing there is, the less room there is for quality racing.

Then, you have to define what constitutes cheap racing. Cheap racing, in my view, is defined by maiden claimers, conditioned claimers (claiming races for horses who haven't won a certain number of races lifetime or haven't won since a certain date), and races restricted to statebreds. I'll venture a guess that most of us probably agree on this.

But to determine how good racing is at a certain circuit, you have to measure it against something else. In this case, it only makes sense to compare the racing at Monmouth to the racing at Belmont Park. The two tracks are close geographically, share some of the East's top stables, and the huge purses offered this year at Monmouth make it a direct rival to New York's long-standing dominance of Eastern racing.

I went back and compared the cards at Monmouth and Belmont on the days they raced against each other. I did not consider the Wednesday and Thursday cards at Belmont when Monmouth didn't race, and I did not consider the June 6 card at Monmouth, the day after the Belmont Stakes when Belmont did not race. I wanted a direct, head-to-head comparison between the two tracks and was left with 23 such racing programs. I tallied the total number of races carded at each track on those days and then totaled the number of maiden claiming races, conditioned claiming races, and statebred races carded.

One caveat: There were instances of overlap, such as statebred maiden claiming races, which I decided to count as a statebred race and a maiden claiming race. Despite these overlapping instances, I think the results I came up with were still representative.

There have been 275 races carded at Monmouth this year on the days Belmont also raced. Of those, 33 were maiden claiming races, 61 were conditioned claiming races, and 55 were races restricted to New Jersey-breds. To put this in terms with which we can make comparisons, 12 percent of Monmouth's races were maiden claimers, 22.2 percent were conditioned claimers, and 20 percent were statebred races.

At Belmont, during a period that included Belmont Stakes Day, there were 230 races carded, of which 36 were maiden claimers, 52 were conditioned claimers, and 82 were races restricted to New York-breds. To put this into percentages, on days Belmont and Monmouth raced head to head, 15.7 percent of Belmont's races were maiden claimers, 22.6 percent were conditioned claimers, and 35.7 percent were statebred races.

What I found is that Monmouth and Belmont carded essentially the same percentage of conditioned claiming races, but Belmont did card 3.7 percent more maiden claiming races, which is not an inconsequential number. But what is astonishing is that Belmont carded 15.7 percent more statebred races than Monmouth did, even though Monmouth had 45 more races to fill on the days the two tracks went head to head.

It is simply staggering that on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and Monday holidays since Monmouth opened on May 22, more than one-third of the races run at Belmont were for New York-breds. Moreover, it is surprising that the percentage of maiden and conditioned claiming races at Belmont were as high as they were on these days when Belmont had two other days in the week (Wednesdays and Thursdays) to disperse such races.

In terms of graded stakes, there is no question that Belmont has had it all over Monmouth. There is just no contest in this regard. Belmont boasts a graded stakes program that probably has no match from the tracks that compete against it, while outside of the Haskell and United Nations, Monmouth really doesn't have much of a graded stakes program at all. However, there also is no question that so far, Monmouth has left much more room than Belmont for races like straight maidens, open claimers, open allowances, and listed stakes. And it is those races that determine the day-to-day quality of a racing program.