03/09/2010 12:00AM

Monmouth set for $1M in daily purses

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Monmouth Park will distribute $1 million a day in purses this year during a 50-day May-to-September meet under a plan that is supported by the state's racing industry and has the potential to significantly alter the racing landscape.

The plan, which was endorsed by the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association on Monday, will make Monmouth's average daily purse distribution the highest in the country, surpassing the venerable meets at Saratoga, Churchill Downs, Santa Anita, and Del Mar. With maiden special weight races offering $75,000 in purse money and $5,000 claiming races offering $30,000 purses, Monmouth is expected to draw top-class horses from circuits across the country.

State officials stressed that the plan has been adopted on a one-year experimental basis, in large part because approximately $20 million of the purse outlay is being provided by casinos in Atlantic City under an agreement that expires at the end of this year.

Robert Kulina, the vice president of racing for the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which owns Monmouth in Oceanport, said that state racing officials decided to implement the plan to determine whether the New Jersey racing industry could be re-invigorated by a "bold" departure from the status quo. Under the plan, Monmouth hopes to attract floods of high-quality horses to 12-race cards on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, in the hopes of offering rich races with big fields that are run in front of big crowds, both ontrack and in the simulcast marketplace.

"The customer wants a better product, and we are great at getting people to the racetrack on weekends," Kulina said. "We're in the entertainment business, and we need to give the customer what he wants."

Last year, Monmouth and its sister track, the Meadowlands, held approximately 140 live Thoroughbred race dates combined, with average purse distribution between the two tracks of approximately $300,000 a day for 10 races per day. This year, the 50-day meet at Monmouth will be followed by a 21-day meet at the track with average purse distribution of approximately $300,000 a day, while no Thoroughbred dates will be offered at the Meadowlands. Purses in the state, on average, will be tripled this year, while he number of live races will be cut approximately 40 percent.

While the plan will almost certainly attract scores of horses and top-class stables to the meet, the plan also will crowd out horsemen on the New Jersey circuit whose stock will now be too cheap to compete. John Forbes, the president of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, acknowledged that the plan will present hardships to horsemen who were accustomed to filling races for $10,000 to $20,000 purses, but he also said that racing needs to change in order to satisfy the needs of its dwindling customer base.

"It's hard for our horsemen to be the first to bite the bullet and be the first to respond" to the changing marketplace, Forbes said. "But if it's the death knell for the small horseman, it's because the small horseman doesn't have the stock that the consumer wants to bet on."

According to Forbes, seven members of the organization's board voted to endorse the plan, while two members opposed it. The two members opposed to the plan said that the proposal would hurt many small stables in the state, Forbes said.

Though the plan has the potential to severely impact the racing program at Saratoga, where the country's top East Coast horses typically compete, officials at Saratoga said Tuesday that Monmouth also might attract so many horses to the region that Saratoga will actually benefit from the $1 million purse outlay.

"First off, there are a lot of unknowns and imponderables at this point," said Hal Handel, the chief operating officer of the New York Racing Association, which operates Saratoga, Belmont, and Aqueduct. "It may be the case that the meet draws a lot of horses and stables from California and the Midwest to New Jersey and the Northeast, and that could be a good thing for New York racing, to have that many more horses in the area."

Asked if NYRA was considering any practices or policies that would provide incentives to horsemen to race at Saratoga - or disincentives to horsemen hoping to ship south - Handel said that officials had not yet discussed any reaction to Monmouth's plan. If and when the association does, Handel said, "We'll probably play our hand pretty close to the vest."

Kulina said that he believes there will be more than enough horses to fill race cards at both Saratoga and Monmouth.

"There's plenty of room for both Monmouth and Saratoga to be successful," Kulina said.

Monmouth has not yet developed any specific criteria to determine whether the one-year experiment can be considered a success, Kulina said, though he pointed to several obvious guideposts, such as an increase in handle and an increase in field size. In lieu of specifics, the meet should be able to demonstrate that racing deserves government support after the casino contract expires at the end of 2010 by generating positive reviews from horsemen and racing fans, Kulina said.

"Our mindset has been that if we're going to do something bold, let's do it while we've got the money," Kulina said. "That can put us in a position to go out and look for future funding by saying that when we have the dollars, this is what we can accomplish."