09/02/2002 11:00PM

Opinions differ on reasons for declines

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Significant declines in business at Monmouth Park this year have generated controversy once again over the number of Thoroughbred racing dates in the state, an issue that has bitterly divided horsemen and Monmouth's management in the past.

Monmouth Park closed its 78-day meet on Sunday with a 10-percent drop in all-sources handle, to $3.45 million, and an 8 percent drop in ontrack attendance, from 10,658 to 9,838. Betting on Monmouth's races by ontrack horseplayers plummeted 16 percent, track officials said.

The declines sharply reversed the double-digit gains the track posted last year, when New Jersey horsemen received a $12 million purse supplement from the state and Monmouth posted record handle numbers. The purse supplement was rescinded this year because of state budget constraints.

Bruce Garland, the vice president of racing for the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which operates Monmouth Park, said that the meet "never generated any momentum," in part because Monmouth ran 78 live days, compared to 72 last year.

"Any time you run more days, you are going to eventually take a toll on the horse population and availability," Garland said.

Monmouth ran the additional days under an agreement with horsemen that called for the authority to run a total of 141 days a year, split between Monmouth and The Meadowlands, which the authority also owns and operates. The agreement was reached earlier this year as part of a settlement of a lawsuit horsemen filed against the track.

Under a law passed several years ago, the NJSEA must run a minimum of 141 days in order to offer telephone wagering and offtrack betting. With the lawsuit, horsemen had contended that they were only forcing the authority to comply with the law.

Tuesday, Dennis Drazin, the legal counsel for the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said that the precipitous declines at Monmouth this year had nothing to do with the extended meet. Instead, he blamed the late date at which the track and horsemen agreed to a settlement.

"We think that had an impact on everything," Drazin said. "It had an impact on expectations, everyone's expectations, from horsemen to the fans. No one knew when the meet was going to start, no one knew what the purses were going to be, or even where to get stabling."

Next year, Monmouth Park is scheduled to run 92 dates under the horsemen's agreement. The 49 remaining live dates will be run at The Meadowlands.

Despite the three-year length of the current contract, Drazin said that the horsemen have been negotiating with the authority about changing the dates next year.

"We have been in the process of talking, ever since the day we settled the lawsuit," Drazin said. "But they haven't come back to us with something that we think is fair."

Garland, who also blamed hot and wet weather during the summer for the track's declines, said that something will have to give to avoid declines next year.

"We need to change a lot of things, but we're working under a three-year agreement that is based on a statute that says we have to run a specific number of days," Garland said. "There's no doubt, especially considering what happened, that this is a bad statute."