07/27/2015 9:27AM

Monmouth gets spruced up for visit from Pharoah

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Emily Shields
All eyes will be on Monmouth Park on Sunday as the track was able to get Triple Crown winner American Pharoah for the Haskell.

Haskell Day is always the high point of the Monmouth Park season. But this year is different. Way different.

American Pharoah’s win in the Belmont Stakes broke a 37-year Triple Crown drought. The pandemonium that broke out at Belmont Park during the stretch run and following the race was televised nationwide. People realize American Pharoah will race only a few more times, and they are hungry to see him. The reach of this year’s Haskell extends far beyond New Jersey.

The attendance record at Monmouth Park came on Haskell Day 2003, when Peace Rules upset Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide before a crowd of 53,638. That record almost assuredly will fall Aug. 2, but how many fans turn out depends on a number of factors, such as the weather and the quality of the rivals who show up to face American Pharoah.

Track president Robert Kulina’s prediction is for the high 50,000s to the mid-60,000s. Dennis Drazin, the head of Darby Development, which operates the track, expects 60,000-plus.

“People here are excited, charged, about being able to see this horse,” Drazin said.

Monmouth Park, which opened in 1946, is a large racetrack, though not on the scale of Belmont Park, Santa Anita, or Churchill Downs. It does have quite a bit of outdoor space behind the grandstand and in the picnic area, which runs to the top of the stretch. Expect a packed house.

Following the Belmont, a number of track executives tried to persuade owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert to send American Pharoah to their track to race, but ultimately Monmouth pulled off a coup and prevailed.

It helped that Baffert is the winningest trainer in Haskell history, having won the race seven times since 2001, and that Zayat is a resident of Teaneck, N.J. They teamed up to win the 2012 Haskell with Paynter.

Although Triple Crown winners have raced in New Jersey before, American Pharoah will be the first at Monmouth.

“We were anxious to get him,” Drazin said. “It’s an honor to have a Triple Crown winner race here.” Kulina said he and his team had three factors working in their favor when they made their pitch to Baffert and Zayat.

“First of all, we have a tremendous relationship with Bob Baffert, and we do a great job with owner hospitality,” Kulina said. “We do things the same way we did 40 years ago when I started here. We develop these relationships. We don’t take anything for granted. Our director of racing, Mike Dempsey, has worked for me since 1979.”

Kulina emphasized how well positioned the Haskell is on the calendar, coming eight weeks after the Belmont Stakes, and how the makeup of Monmouth’s racing surface and the distance of the race appeals to horsemen.

“The 1 1/8-mile distance over a speed-favoring track leads nicely into the upcoming 1 1/4-mile races,” Kulina said.

Once Monmouth received a commitment from American Pharoah’s connections, the job of rounding up a field of horses to face him fell to Dempsey.

That is no easy assignment since the Grade 2, $600,000 Jim Dandy and the Grade 2, $750,000 West Virginia Derby will be run the same weekend. All three races are 1 1/8 miles.

“He’s a once-in-a-lifetime horse, and the trainers who have been running against him respect him,” Dempsey said. “But every year it’s a challenge, and every year the Haskell comes up a great race. I’m confident it will this year, too.”

New Jersey racing has been struggling to keep its head above water, and in order to keep purse levels competitive with surrounding states, the number of annual Thoroughbred dates has dwindled to 71. Purses in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia all benefit from casino-gambling revenue, but Monmouth does not.

With casino gambling in New Jersey likely to expand out of struggling Atlantic City in the coming years, Monmouth officials want a casino on track grounds. Monmouth also is pursuing sports betting and exchange wagering.

Drazin hopes the Haskell will allow Monmouth to show state legislators that racing is a vibrant sport that deserves to survive.

“Having American Pharoah here will show that Monmouth Park plays on a world-class stage,” he said. “The Haskell will highlight to the legislature that we draw a lot of people and that this beautiful facility should be preserved. It has always been the plan that if gaming expands in the state, that we think it belongs at Monmouth Park.”

Monmouth Park has experience putting on big events. It hosted the Breeders’ Cup in 2007, and each year the track handles large crowds on Haskell Day. But American Pharoah’s presence poses new challenges.

Kulina said preparing for American Pharoah is more difficult than getting ready for the Breeders’ Cup.

“With the Breeders’ Cup, we knew it was coming far in advance,” he said. “With American Pharoah, we didn’t have a full commitment until recently. When you host the Breeders’ Cup, they basically rent your facility. They make all of the decisions on pricing, seating, etc. This event is much tougher. I have my normal staff, and we are still racing. We have day-to-day things to do. I’m making decisions daily on whether to pull the trigger on this or that, or not.”

To accommodate the masses, the picnic area will be expanded; 200 mutuel machines, some self-service, some manned, will be added; 300 mutuel clerks will be brought in from out of state; and there will be an increased number of ATM machines and TVs.

Mobile concession stands will be scattered around the grounds, in addition to Porta Johns and rest-room trailers.

Security will be increased. The New Jersey State Police is sending an entire unit, according to Kulina.

Off-site parking and shuttle buses are being arranged. Plans are being made with New Jersey Transit to have several trains parked nearby that can get to Monmouth quickly after the Haskell.

All of these things cost money, meaning the Haskell will not be a huge financial windfall for Monmouth, according to Kulina.

“We’ve spent $35,000 on furniture for the Lady’s Secret Cafe; we have spent $40,000 on televisions,” Kulina said. “I don’t have a final figure, but our preparations will be between $350,000 and $500,000. Some of these things we would have done anyway; we have just accelerated the timetable to this year. If I could sign up for a break-even day, I would do it immediately.”

While the short-term costs affect the bottom line, Kulina sees long-lasting benefits coming out of this year’s Haskell.

“I’m thinking big picture,” he said. “American Pharoah gives us a chance to regrab horse racing in New Jersey. It will show that Monmouth is important to the New Jersey shore and the local economy. Down the road, this day is going to make future Haskells bigger than they are now.”