05/12/2011 2:29PM

Monmouth Park: Season opens admidst uncertainty of what happens beyond June 12


OCEANPORT, N.J. – There are few things that can be said with absolute certainty about the Monmouth Park meet that starts Saturday at 12:50 p.m. Eastern with an 11-race card.

The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority has issued a condition book that runs through June 12. The NJSEA, the owner and operator of Monmouth since 1986, is committed to run the track until then.

Beyond that, the picture gets fuzzy with a new operator possibly in place. The NJSEA has entered into negotiations with Morris Bailey, a long-time horse owner, to lease Monmouth.

Beyond the first condition book, no one knows the racing schedule or the purse levels. The confusion stems from the stated goal of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to end the state’s involvement with horse racing.

Christie created a panel last year that recommended the state take measures to protect and promote the Atlantic City casinos while shedding its two tracks; Monmouth and the Meadowlands.

Jeff Gural is finalizing details to take over the Meadowlands and Bailey is working on a Monmouth lease.

Both Gural and Bailey are real-estate executives with casino backgrounds. Gural operates two Standardbred racinos in upstate New York: Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs. Bailey is the co-owner of Resorts International casino in Atlantic City.

Privatizing the two state-owned racetracks is a complicated process involving diverse issues such as union contracts and the division of simulcast revenues between Standardbred and Thoroughbred horsemen.

With many points still outstanding, the parameters of the meet are uncertain. Issues such as the length of the season and the purse structure will depend on ongoing negotiations, including a meeting on Thursday in Trenton, N.J. involving the governor’s office, the prospective lessees, and the horsemen’s representatives.

There is a lot at stake, and little time to work through the details. Should the lease negotiations fall apart, Gov. Christie has threatened to terminate racing at both tracks. Christie has already ruled out the purse subsidies that made last year possible.

Monmouth took a bold step last summer in compressing the bulk of the meet to a 50-day “Elite Meet” with $50 million in purses.

The results exceeded all expectations as field size, betting handle, and attendance soared while Monmouth became the toast of the racing industry for the bold experiment.

The buzz is gone this year, replaced by questions without answers as horsemen and fans wonder what the 2011 season holds.

“We are opening up one of the great tracks in America,” said vice president and general manager Bob Kulina. “Last year’s meet was an incredible success. We feel we have the model to move forward. The lease is in progress and we expect to have it very soon. We have high expectations for this year and for the future of New Jersey racing.”

While the initial purses won’t match last year’s lofty levels, they are strong by traditional Monmouth standards. First-level allowance races that went for $80,000 last season are $50,000 in the first condition book; overnight stakes that carried $100,000 purses last year are listed for $75,000.

The backstretch was strangely quiet on Thursday morning as many of the regular New Jersey outfits were still in the process of shipping in while the high-profile outfits that came last year for the big money won’t be returning.

“There are a lot of faces you don’t see,” said trainer Ben Perkins, Jr. “It’s a shame we couldn’t have had the [ownership] switchover last year when you had all the money and all the people here and all the excitement we generated. This year will be like the day after New Year’s with a little hangover, no matter what happens.”

The $75,000 Decathlon Stakes at six furlongs is the opening-day feature. It attracted seven runners, including Awesome Son, who won three straight races last summer before shutting down for knee surgery. A chip was discovered as part of the vetting process before a potential sale.

“It killed the deal and we wound up taking the chip out and giving him the winter off in Florida,” said trainer Tim Kelly.

A 4-year-old gelding, Awesome Son has been working strongly at Gulfstream and here for his return.

“He’s just been training great, lights out,” Kelly said. “Now we’re ready to roll.”

Wildcat Brief was a stakes winner here last summer, taking the Icecapade. He finished out the campaign in a pair of stakes at Belmont Park, rallying from far back to get third in the Grade 1 Vosburgh and a fifth in the Grade 3 Bold Ruler.

Like Awesome Son, this will be the 5-year-old Wildcat Brief’s season debut.

“We kept him up here for winter but the weather was so bad he fell a little bit behind,” Perkins said. “He’s been doing good here and he’s ready to go.”