05/10/2012 2:02PM

Monmouth puts its fate in Drazin's hands

Bill Denver/Equi-Photo
Dennis Drazin resigned as chairman of the New Jersey Racing Commission to serve as an adviser to the horsemen's association, which now controls Monmouth Park. He hopes to turn Monmouth into a year-round resort destination.

Dennis Drazin spent his honeymoon in Hawaii talking about Monmouth Park. This was during the first three weeks of January, and he was needed 5,000 miles and six time zones away.

“Some of my conference calls were 3:30 in the morning, my time,” said Drazin, 60, whose marriage to Nona Balaban on New Year’s Eve was his first. “My wife had to put up with my being on the phone almost daily, trying to put this deal together.”

This deal was for the future of racing in New Jersey. For the third consecutive season, uncertainty and apprehension cloud Monmouth as it prepares to open a 65-day meeting Saturday. An earlier deal collapsed over the winter, leaving Monmouth without an operator. Enter Drazin, the quintessential backroom dealer who has been called upon to save the track.

Drazin is probably unfamiliar to Monmouth railbirds, and if the name registers at all it might be from local television commercials for his personal-injury law firm Drazin & Warshaw. But in Garden State politics and horse racing he is on the speed dial of so many legislators, officials, powerbrokers. He has bred and owned horses for more than 30 years and for the last decade worked on behalf of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association as either its general counsel or president.

Now Drazin is about to take the starring role, the director moving out from behind the camera to take his own acting cues. The track’s fate will rise or fall on his ideas, his work, his political connections. The state, Monmouth’s owner since 1985, wants out of this racing business.

On Dec. 1, after negotiations for a lease between casino and real-estate mogul Morris Bailey and the state finally came apart, the governor’s office asked Drazin to resign as the chairman of the New Jersey Racing Commission. He was asked to step into Bailey’s shoes as an adviser to the horsemen’s association. On Feb. 2, the horsemen submitted their lease proposal; by the end of that month, Monmouth Park was theirs.

“I felt the best advice I could give to the horsemen is to control their own destiny,” Drazin said. “And even though it’s a large undertaking, I’ve guided the industry for many years now, and they trust me. I think that with my advice and counsel they can put this all together.”

How did this historic track become so unloved? For most of its 67 years in Oceanport, Monmouth’s by-the-sea rhythms were as regular as the tides. But then two years ago there was the experimental “Elite Meet,” where purses more than doubled and the calendar was halved, and then last year, as the state fled for the exit, Bailey’s takeover was supposed to be right around the corner.

The horsemen are in control now – their lease could run as long as 35 years – and this is groundbreaking in its own right. Nobody can recall horsemen running their own racetrack. The racing world will be watching closely. As one racetrack owner cynically put it: “It is giving the keys to the asylum to the horsemen.”

Drazin counters with an optimistic tone. “We have a vision and the adequate wherewithal to make it happen,” he said.

This vision is to turn Monmouth Park into a year-round resort destination. Without slot machines, it is one of the few avenues for finding alternative revenue streams. Under discussion are a water park, hotel, two-screen movie theater, retail and commercial space, 36-hole miniature golf course, restaurants, and boardwalk. The horsemen also gain control of the Woodbridge Off-Track Wagering (OTW) facility and plan to add two more within 24 months.

The merger of horsemen and management, often at odds in racing, makes Drazin the most powerful person in New Jersey racing. He was influential in Monmouth’s Breeders’ Cup bid in 2007 and the “Elite Meet,” to name the most prominent cases. This task, however, to turn a profit at a racetrack surrounded by ones that double as casinos, dwarfs those challenges. The horsemen’s association has placed in him its unflinching trust.

“He’s a natural leader, and we’re getting behind him,” said Tim Hills, the veteran trainer and member of the association’s board. He called Drazin a “pitbull” in his negotiating on behalf of the horsemen. “He’s relentless but in a smooth way. Thankfully he’s on our side.”

This year’s schedule is like the last two years – 65 days, mostly three-day weeks, and average daily purses of $400,000, with one notable addition: four cards on Thursdays in August, with first post at 4 p.m. and a large concert following the final race at 7 p.m.

Drazin heads the new management company, Elite Equine Consulting LLC, that will oversee the operation of Monmouth. Drazin is its chairman and general counsel, and Bob Kulina, previously Monmouth’s longtime general manager, is its president. Drazin’s brothers and law partners, Ronald and Brian, will oversee the development of property surrounding Monmouth. Morris Bailey will most likely have a hand in these real-estate deals.

Racegoers will see few visible changes this meet, besides four new video boards and a switch from concessions provider Aramark to a company called Gourmet Dining, with much of the rollout coming sometime in the fall of 2012. That is going at breakneck speed, and Monmouth’s survival depends on it.

Over the course of several interviews, including more than two hours spent at his law office in Red Bank, Drazin spoke about his background, his motivation for this work, and his ideas for Monmouth.

Drazin looks younger than his age although gray hair might be ready to pounce. He sleeps four or five hours a night, and Monmouth Park has supplanted his legal practice in occupying the majority of his time. On this day, he fielded calls from the mayor of Oceanport and executive staff of the horsemen’s association. He seems perennially unruffled, hesitation never slipping into his almost unchanging delivery.

Everything is going through Drazin, and he doesn’t hesitate saying so.

“I get involved with almost every issue that’s out there,” he said.

All of these development plans for Monmouth signify a conscious break from its cherished past.

“I think there are a number of opportunities for Monmouth if people have the vision to try and be creative and do things different than the same thing year after year,” Drazin said. “We have to move into a new era.”

DRF WEEKEND: Luck runs in Derby winner I'll Have Another's family | Handicapping roundups

Yet perhaps his greatest motivation is the centrality of Monmouth to his life and what he says is his desire to “save it.”

Drazin was raised in nearby Rumson and currently lives in Fair Haven. His father, Louis, who started the law firm to which his sons would one day join, bought his first racehorses in 1958. He brought Dennis, his oldest son, to the farm or to the races to watch his horses. The boy was hooked.

In his teens Drazin started hanging around the Monmouth backstretch, spending hours at the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Jimmy Croll. His partner in crime was John Kimmel. Like Drazin, Kimmel grew up nearby, and his father, Caesar Kimmel, who was the vice-president of Warner Communications, also owned racehorses.

Their friendship fastened like a cinch around their love of horse racing. Soon after their college years they were ready to put a price tag on this love.

“We got to a point when John and I wanted to take every dime we had in the world, and between the two of us we raised fifty thousand,” Drazin said. “We wanted to buy a share in a horse going to stud.”

It was 1975, and that was a lot of money for a stallion. It was a horse Croll had trained. Their fathers sternly talked them out of it. Caesar Kimmel told his son: “That horse is only a sprinter. He’s never going to make any kind of stallion.”

Who was the stallion?

“Mr. Prospector,” Drazin said with a grin.

Five years later Mr. Prospector was re-syndicated by Claiborne Farm for $20 million. Their parents couldn’t discourage them after that. In the early 1980s, as Drazin was settling into the law firm and Kimmel had begun work as a veterinarian after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, the pair started Aspen Stable, whose mission was to make money in a variety of ways – breeding, buying, pinhooking, racing.

One of the first horses they bought was a broodmare named Key to Paree and they bred her to Distinctive Pro, a son of Mr. Prospector. Kimmel had started training by then. They named the filly Bodacious Tatas.

“She ended up to be a very popular horse and did pretty well for us,” Drazin deadpanned.

It got past the Jockey Club?

“It took a few years, but it got past the Jockey Club. They didn’t catch it or they ignored it,” he said.

They got a lot of mileage out of that name. Bodacious Tatas gained cult status on the New Jersey and New York circuit. She defeated Grecian Flight in the 1989 Molly Pitcher Handicap and earned almost $500,000 in her 57-start career. Kimmel laughed as he was reminded of a headline from a local newspaper: “Molly Pitcher has Bodacious Tatas.”

They were rabble-rousers, particularly Drazin. Kimmel said his friend relished carrying on in Caesar Kimmel’s mold, who had a thing for racy, tongue-twisting names for his horses, such as Cunning Stunt and Cold as a Witch’s. They’d spend hours coming up with slogans and double meanings to slip past the Jockey Club. They bred a half-sister to Bodacious Tatas, by Risen Star, and named her Ophelia Tatas.

“And we got it!” Kimmel exclaimed.

One day, someone from the Jockey Club came by to tattoo the yearling filly and get her identifying characteristics. After this official left Kimmel realized he had kept the foal papers. Kimmel called the Jockey Club to ask for them. Another official got on the phone.

“I’m not giving your papers back until you change her name,” Kimmel was told. “No more Tatas!”

“So we renamed her Ophelia T.,” Kimmel said.

In the early 1990s, Kimmel decided to try the big time in New York, and Drazin wanted to stay home. Drazin still sent his friend some horses, but employed other trainers in New Jersey. Louis Drazin had never wanted more than nine horses at a time, but his son had grander aims. Drazin soon had up to 150 horses, racing and breeding, he leased farms in four states, maintaining a band of 30 broodmares, and he owned shares in Seattle Slew.

The late Pete Fortay was training for him then and nearly every morning Drazin went to see his horses at the old Stavola Brothers’ Middletown Stables in Colts Neck. The horses were his escape. Jason Servis, who now trains for Drazin, was then Fortay’s assistant and exercise rider.

Servis toiled in every job at the racetrack, and years later, after he finished another Meadowlands season as a valet in the jockeys’ room and exercise rider in the morning, Drazin gave him his break. He asked Servis to take a few of his horses to Aqueduct.

“I didn’t have money for payroll or anything,” Servis said. Drazin fronted it. “He thought I was a diamond in the rough and that I deserved the chance.”

They claimed some high-priced claiming horses, and Drazin chose one named Tempest Fugit for $75,000. The classy gelding won the Grade 3 Oceanport and close to a half-million dollars for them. His career thus launched, Servis now trains more than 60 horses in New York and New Jersey.

“He’s honest and fair, and he does a lot of worrying about everyone else,” Servis said of Drazin. “I don’t know where I’d be without him.”

During these years, Drazin’s political stature grew. In the late 1970s he started lobbying and fund-raising on behalf of New Jersey’s trial lawyers’ political action committees. The horsemen’s association asked him for advice on the political issues facing horse racing, and by 1999 he had agreed to serve as its general counsel.

John Forbes, the president at the time, told Drazin he was the only one willing to put in the time and his connections would surely help them. Said Drazin, “I bit hook, line, and sinker.”

Drazin molded the horsemen’s association into a political force. The group raised money for its new political-action committee and donated large sums to politicians. Drazin saw this as a way to get access to politicians so as to “educate” them on the issues facing horse racing. This did not go over well in some parts.

In 2001, the New Jersey Racing Commission launched an investigation after it learned that the horsemen spent nearly $400,000 on political contributions and lobbyists. The following year, a county judge approved Drazin’s plan to spend $250,000 of the association’s funds on these measures (the difference had been privately raised) as appropriate for furthering legislation and state subsidies that would benefit the industry.

But the heated dispute stretched another three years. Near the end of 2003, the commission went so far as to sue the association to freeze its assets, alleging that the group had misspent millions and Drazin had improperly accepted gifts. But a Superior Court judge ruled that Drazin had provided exceptional service and dismissed that claim.

Still, the commission’s lawsuit over the association’s political contributions and legal fees went on, finally ending in a settlement in March 2005 between the two sides so as not to threaten Monmouth’s Breeders’ Cup bid. Ironically, Drazin was appointed to chair the racing commission in 2009.

Drazin and Kulina led the push for the Breeders’ Cup, and they were behind the “Elite Meet” – hence the name of their management company – which they had attempted to get approved in 2008 and 2009.

By and large, the meet was a success – in terms of attendance, handle, competition, and purses. They were hopeful that it could be a springboard to similar meets and that Monmouth Park had proved its worth to the governor. But it failed in that it could not be repeated. The bottom line for the state was this: Monmouth still lost $6.1 million.

“The state bailed on us,” Drazin said. “It was supposed to be, ‘We’ll find the money where you can make it happen again.’”

So now their hope is that New York’s stratospheric purses will send a healthy overflow to New Jersey. Without the salve of slots, which still seems tenuous in states like Pennsylvania where the governor wants to move funds previously designated for racing, Monmouth will have to give it a go with racing itself and other attractions. Drazin said he thinks slot machines won’t be possible for at least five years.

The offtrack wagering is a start. A company that provides tote systems has committed to putting up $18.25 million to erect three OTWs in northern New Jersey. A law passed 10 years ago allowed for 15 OTWs, but only three have been built. The next one, in Bayonne, should be operational within 12 months, and another location is scheduled to open within 24 months. The deal calls for a total of four additional OTWs. The horsemen also get a 50 percent share of the state’s account-wagering system, plus the chance to place a total of 20 betting terminals across 12 restaurants or bars, according to a new law.

Furthermore, to entice a new operator to come in so quickly, the state agreed to cover half of the expected $8 million losses in 2012. The state will also loan the horsemen $5 million for 2012, and $2 million in both 2013 and 2014. Rent is $1 per year for the first five years, $250,000 or 5 percent of net operating profits (whichever is greater) for the next 10 years, and $500,000 or 5 percent of net operating profits per year for the final 20 years.

The redevelopment plan for the 320-acre site is supposed to cost $100 million. One idea Drazin is championing is to build a casino room at Monmouth within the next year, where free-play games will be offered. An Internet gaming bill will soon land on the governor’s desk, and Drazin is seeking an amendment that will permit the track to enter into a lease agreement with a casino wherein that casino rents the room and operates Internet gaming.

This work for Drazin and all involved is staggering. Elite Management and Darby Development are startups. They are negotiating with 16 different unions on their contracts. All of the people the Sports Authority employed at Monmouth will have to be rehired on the Darby payroll. Workers’ compensation and health benefits have to be worked out.

Morale at the track finished the 2011 meet at rock-bottom, as one deadline after another passed for a deal between Bailey and the state. Bailey reportedly left the table once the state threw up yet another roadblock, this time over the transfer of the horsemen’s permits to race at the Meadowlands.

Throughout the summer and fall, the Sports Authority sent notices notifying employees that they’d be fired within 60 days once the state ceased operating the track. Four letters went out, testifying to the stop-and-start negotiations. In addition, 52 seasonal employees saw their Sports Authority pension fund liquidated one late August weekend. Under Bailey, employees expected either a 20 percent pay cut or loss of benefits. It seems unlikely the new management will deviate.

Everybody – from owners to trainers to tellers to weekend warriors – waits anxiously for the new Monmouth Park. Despite all these challenges – or rather, knowing his personality, because of them – Drazin, who maneuvered behind the scenes all those years, wants to come out from behind the curtain. Quite literally. He would like an office inside the track itself rather than the administration building.

“I think it’s important that like the face of the track, the adviser, that is helping develop these ideas is more accessible to the public,” he said. “So I want to actually be there during all the racing hours and have some place where people can come over and talk and exchange ideas.”