05/09/2013 1:19PM

Monmouth Park opens first meet since Superstorm Sandy

Bill Denver/Equi-Photo
Monmouth Park, shown here earlier in the week, had to rebuild nine barns after Sandy hit.

OCEANPORT, N.J. – Like a good neighbor, Monmouth Park was there when Superstorm Sandy ravaged the Jersey Shore last fall.

After a painful winter of recovery and the rebuilding of devastated homes and businesses, the racetrack and the community are fighting back.

The best evidence of the renewal comes Saturday when Monmouth kicks off its 2013 season. The track has invited 40 local businesses to set up booths, promoting the theme that “The Shore is open for business.”

That hardly seemed possible back in November and December in the aftermath of widespread devastation. In that hour of need, Monmouth responded.

The track served as both a shelter and a command post. At one point, Monmouth was home to about 3,000 displaced residents. Roughly 1,000 people were housed in the grandstand enclosure with another 2,000 living in a tent city erected in the parking lots. Other areas of the track were used as staging grounds for utility workers and construction crews struggling to restore power and clear debris in nearby towns.

“We pitched in for the community and did what was right,” said Dennis Drazin, the advisor to Darby Development, which operates the track on behalf of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.

While Monmouth did not feel the full fury of the storm, the track suffered significant damage primarily in the barn area. Trees were uprooted, roofs damaged and dormitories flooded. Nine barns had to be completely rebuilt, along with the guard house and stall office at the main stable entrance off Route 36.

“Getting ready for this meet was quite an accomplishment given that Hurricane Sandy laid waste to Monmouth Park,” said Drazin who estimates the final repair bill will be “millions and millions of dollars.”

Racing the calendar, Monmouth pulled together the pieces in time for the new season, which runs through Oct. 6. The track will race Saturdays and Sundays for most of May, adding a holiday card on Memorial Day.

Starting May 31, the schedule expands to a three-day schedule of Friday through Sunday. First post is 12:50 p.m. Eastern.

The highlight of the Monmouth season remains the $1 million Haskell Invitational for 3-year-olds on July 28.

While the storm repair was the major preoccupation of the off-season, fans will notice several new features this season, including a brand new bar on the main floor under the grandstand overhang at the sixteenth pole and several different wagering options.

Monmouth is bringing back the pick six for the last six races of the day. The bet, named the Jersey Shore Six, will have a base price of 10 cents and the entire pool is paid out only if there is a single winning ticket. It is modeled on the successful Rainbow Six at Gulfstream Park. When there is no single winning ticket, 60 percent of the pool will be split among the tickets with the most winners that day and 40 percent of the pool will carry over to the next racing day.

After a 50 year gap, the quinella returns. There will be one a day on the last race as a $5 wager.

Monmouth has also made it easier to bet, wiring the entire facility for wi-fi to open the door for mobile wagering. Players can open a single-day account at any teller window and use an app on a smart phone or tablet to wager.

TVG will be a major presence this summer at Monmouth.

“They are going to make this their East Coast hub,” said Bill Knauf, vice president/business operations at Monmouth. “Not only will they be here full time Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, they will broadcast from the finish line set on Wednesday and Thursday, our dark days.

“The expanded coverage, I’m figuring, will help us quite a bit, making us more visible throughout the country.”

This is the second year that the Monmouth willbe in private hands. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie decided the state would no longer operate racetracks, the horsemen were given the permit to operate Monmouth.

“We’ve turned it around,” said Drazin. “We eliminated the losses that had been prevalent for many years. Monmouth Park now stands on its own without subsidies and looks forward to a glorious future.”

Without the subsidies from the state, Monmouth will again be hard pressed to offer purses competitive with the booming racinos in New York and Pennsylvania.

The best hope for relief is the ongoing legal battle to overturn the prohibition on sports wagering. Anticipating a favorable outcome, Monmouth has partnered with prominent British bookmaker William Hill.

In the short run, William Hill has a two-year agreement to become title sponsor of the Haskell. In the event Monmouth wins the appeal and can offer sports bets, William Hill will build a Las Vegas-style sports book at the track.

Monmouth will introduce new Lasix rules this meet. Administration of the diuretic will occur 4 to 4 1/2 hours before race time in the horse’s stall by a veterinarian employed by Kunze Equine. No other vets will be allowed in the stall. Monmouth is getting an early jump on the Lasix administration protocol that is part of the Mid-Atlantic Uniform Medication Program that begins Jan. 1, 2014.

“We are taking this proactive step as a prelude to the 2014 rules,” said Mike Musto, executive director of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “By starting now, horsemen will have time to adjust to the other rules that take effect in the new year.”

Following the conclusion of the Monmouth Park meet, 10 turf-only cards are scheduled to be run at the Meadowlands from Oct. 11 to Nov. 2.