05/10/2012 12:51PM

Monmouth Park: New era starts with Decathlon as featured race

Barbara D. Livingston
Zero Rate Policy is 3 for 5 at Monmouth Park.

OCEANPORT, N.J. – The dark clouds over Monmouth Park, both literal and figurative, have parted in time for opening day on Saturday.

The rain in the area over the past week is expected to clear out, leaving a sunny afternoon with temperatures in the low 70s for the first of 65 dates on the Jersey Shore. A 12-race card starts the meet starting at 12:50 p.m. The $75,000 Decathlon at six furlongs anchors the initial program, launching a season that runs through Oct. 7.

As in recent years, Monmouth will race primarily on weekends. Monmouth runs Saturdays and Sundays in May with Memorial Day added on May 28. The schedule expands to Friday through Sunday in June and July along with a holiday card on Wednesday, July 4.

Monmouth will offer four twilight cards on Thursdays in August with first post at 4 p.m.

After Labor Day, Monmouth cuts back to a Saturday-Sunday schedule.

The recent showers weren’t the only storm buffeting Monmouth. After a rocky political winter, there is finally a glimmer of daylight.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wanted the state out of the racing business. After a deal to lease the track to horse owner and real estate executive Morris Bailey fell apart late last year, Christie threatened to close Monmouth.

This meet was far from a certainty, until the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association won a five-Year lease to run Monmouth with options that could extend the deal 30 additional years.

“You don’t know how close we came to shutting down Monmouth Park,” said Dennis Drazin, former chairman of the New Jersey Racing Commission who is advising the new management team and the horsemen in this transition period.

The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority is out, replaced by Darby Development, which will provide the management team for the horsemen.

Bob Kulina, longtime Monmouth executive, will supervise the day-to-day operations for Darby.

“Right now we’re being asked to do something very few racetracks are asked to do,” Kulina said. “We’re going to keep this great tradition alive by selling horse bets. That’s where our money is made.”

The short-term keys to success will be presenting attractive racing for the bettors along with development of several offtrack wagering outlets to complement the successful Woodbridge, N.J. parlor.

“It’s all about the product,” Kulina said. “The horsemen deliver the product, so hopefully everybody steps up.”

Purses will remain at the $400,000 level per day for the core meet from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and the $1 million, Grade 1 Haskell Invitational on July 29 remains the centerpiece of the stakes program.

With the new management has come some belt-tightening. While the Haskell purse is intact, the rest of the stakes program has been reduced. All graded stakes beside the Haskell will offer less money, and Monmouth will offer fewer overnight stakes this year.

Fans will notice two major changes to the facility: four new video boards and revamped food offerings in the restaurants and concession stands.

The long-term salvation for Monmouth, as with most racetracks, depends on alternative gaming. Drazin said any move in that direction is five years away.

In the interim, Darby Development will explore potential uses of excess property including a miniature golf course, a boardwalk with arcade games, a water theme park, a concert stage and a year-round restaurant and hotel complex.

Back to the present, the Decathlon at six furlongs is a solid opening-day feature that attracted nine runners.

Zero Rate Policy, winner of the Rumson Stakes here last summer, will break from the outside stall for trainer Terri Pompay.

The 4-year-old gelding has always raced well here, with 3 wins in 5 starts. He turned in a pair of bullet workouts at Monmouth since shipping north from Florida.

Zero Rate Policy appeared on the verge of a breakthrough to the next level back on New Year’s Eve, when he missed by a nose to Apriority in the Grade 3 Mr Prospector Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

It didn’t happen.

“He’s not at that point yet, but he’s shown glimmers,” Pompay said. “We’re hoping for a little more consistency.”

He bounced him in next start, finishing fourth in Gulfstream’s Sunshine Millions Sprint, a race that on paper looked like an easier spot. He was fifth most recently in the D.F. Kenner Stakes at the Fair Grounds.

Other leading runners in the Decathlon include Congressional Page, winner of this race in 2010, Soaring Stocks, and Flat Bold.