05/11/2017 11:26AM

Monmouth takes action to stem declining business

John Wirth/Equi-Photo
Monmouth Park is hoping to increase field size and secure legislative relief in order to increase business. It also has greatly improved its food service.

OCEANPORT, N.J. – The mantra at Monmouth Park as it begins its 72nd season Saturday is "down but not out."

Monmouth is the only track in the Mid-Atlantic region that doesn’t have alternative gaming or receive a casino subsidy, placing it at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to maintaining purses high enough to attract horses while remaining fiscally solvent.

Last year, Monmouth struggled to fill race cards and ran fewer races. When the dust cleared, handle was down 25 percent.

To keep purses on a par with last year, Monmouth has trimmed its season from 57 days to 50. The stakes schedule also took a hit for the second straight year. Stakes purses were cut $925,000 for 2017, following a $1.1 million cut a year ago.

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The strategy moving forward is three-pronged. An emphasis has been placed on increasing field size and running more races than in 2016. The track also will try to increase non-parimutuel revenue.

And finally, the industry is awaiting the November gubernatorial election and the departure of Gov. Chris Christie, who in 2011 took the industry’s casino subsidy away and in general has not been a horse-racing proponent.

State Sen. Richard Codey said at a Tuesday press conference that he believes horse racing will be viewed more positively in the legislature a year from now.

“Racing is not a partisan issue,” said Codey, who previously served 14 months as the state’s governor. “Democrats and Republicans need racing to stay alive down here. I think there will be a new attitude in Trenton.”

Dennis Drazin, the head of Darby Development, which has operated Monmouth on behalf of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association since 2012, acknowledges that the industry will need legislative help to survive.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Drazin said. “There has been a lot of belt tightening. It takes three people to get something out of Trenton – the Senate president, the Assembly speaker, and the governor. Many years, we have had two out of the three. We need either casino expansion, sports betting, or historical racing.”

To help support field size at the meet, Monmouth has eliminated four-day race weeks. The track will race Friday to Sunday, and when it races on a holiday Monday, there will not be racing the following Friday. With July 4 falling on a Tuesday this year, the track will not hold a live card.

Bob Kulina, president of Darby Development, said Monmouth ran 94 fewer races last year than in 2015.

“That is like running 10 less days,” he said. “We had too many nine-race cards last year. We want to run between 34 and 36 races per week.”

Kulina said he is comfortable with the horse population and expects better support from horsemen this year.

“I’m feeling pretty pleased with the racing product I think we’ll be able to offer,” Kulina said. “We have a few new guys, and all of the major guys are back – Pletcher, Brown, Navarro, Breen, Plesa, Jason Servis. I think it’s about a wash. A lot of places would like to be starting out like us.”

To increase non-parimutuel revenue, track management is making a concerted effort to improve customer satisfaction and has brought its food concessions in house.

“The single biggest complaint I hear about is the food,” Drazin said. “We are going to change the food culture here. When the food trucks are here, we draw 60,000 to 70,000 people over a three-day weekend. It’s very important to our customers.”

Tom Barone, who helped start the Blu Grotto restaurant, which opened last summer on track property, has been named vice president of food and beverages.

Barone has brought two New Jersey favorites ontrack, Max’s Famous Hot Dogs and Strollo’s Lighthouse Italian Ice. Both will have booths in the grandstand and in the picnic area.

Barone also has revamped the ontrack food offerings.

“We have complete autonomy,” he said. “We will be able to make what we want. New Jersey is famous for its sweet corn and tomatoes, and we are going to take advantage of that. In the dining room, we now have a large lobster tank. You can have a whole lobster or a lobster roll. You will be able to buy lobster rolls throughout the track. We are going to have pig roasts in the picnic area.”

Barone said Monmouth is going to “slash pricing across the board.”

Last year, a beer cost $7 to $8, but it will sell for $4 to $5 this year.

The Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational will be run for the 50th time on July 30 and will be sponsored again by Betfair.com and televised live as part of NBC’s “Road to the Breeders’ Cup” series. As part of the BC Challenge Series, the Haskell is a Win and You’re In event for the BC Classic.