03/25/2010 12:00AM

Q&A: Robert Kulina

Bill Denver/Equiphotos

Vice president and general manager of Monmouth Park, whose revamped schedule for this summer's meet, beginning May 22, combines fewer racing days with an average of $1 million in daily purses.

Birthdate: Sept. 20, 1949, in Summerville, N.J.

Family: wife, Sue; sons Chris, Joel

Got into racing because . . .: "I'm the son of a trainer, so I've been in this game my whole life. My dad, Joe, trained for over 40 years. My first job was working for him when I was 13, leaving Summerville at about 4:10, sleeping while he drove. I did that all through college and my first year out of college. I was planning on being a trainer."

What made you switch to the front side? "When I got out of school, I needed a job. I got a job in the racing office at Monmouth in 1972. My dad trained for the treasurer of the track. I got a job as the claims clerk. The track ran 60 days. In between, I would rub horses. I put a timeframe on advancement in my mind. I wanted to train by the second year. I told my dad I wasn't going back to Monmouth. He said, 'What are you doing to do? You don't have a job with me. You better called Ken Lennox up' - he was the vice president of racing - 'and get that job back.' I got really lucky. Most of the people in the racing office were my current age. I was probably the first of my generation, guys like Frank Gabriel and Lou Raffetto and Terry Meyocks, to get a job as a racing secretary. I got the job in 1977. I was a kid. I had just turned 27. I didn't know what I was doing, but Ken Lennox had faith in me. It was a huge advantage being a trainer's son, because I understood the guys I was doing business with. I understood their problems."

You've been associated with Monmouth all your life. How special is the track to you? "It's almost not a job, it's a passion. You just do what you do because you care about the place so much. I was fortunate to first work for Monmouth when it was owned by Jockey Club members, when the game was the game. I've got the colors of a couple of those guys on paintings of jockeys in my office, and I think, 'I hope I didn't let you guys down.' "

What was the impetus to move to the schedule you will have this summer? "A bunch of things. First off, we couldn't have done this without Dennis Drazin and John Forbes, the past and current horsemen's representatives. This is the last year of the casino supplement. In our opinion, we needed to do something drastic to be able to go out there and look for future funding. We started on this after we played host to the Breeders' Cup in 2007. Things were changing in the industry, and not for the better. We thought, 'Let's do something where we have no excuses.' The idea was $1 million a day, only 50 days. More races of better quality. I can't thank the horsemen of New Jersey enough. This goes against everything in their DNA, to give up racing days, but they understood that we need to do something different."

Are you looking forward to the meet with anticipation or dread? "I'm not dreading it. Anticipation, yes. I'm a little scared. If you can't get excited over this, it's time to move on. The potential is enormous. Instead of looking at another beaten $5,000 claimer with six horses, now it's how many overnight stakes can we schedule. We're trying to figure out how to handle the small outfits. We're trying to finalize different ways to distribute the purses so everybody can participate. It costs a lot to ship on the East Coast. That's why we're going to pay back to last place. If we can help offset some of the cost of a guy who needs to ship in from, say, Delaware, a guy is less likely to scratch if he's 15-1 in a race and not leave players with a small field. It's a gamble but one we had to take."

How confident are you that this will work? "I think it's going to work. I'm really excited. We need to be creative. We have to focus on the consumer. I think we've lost that focus a lot. The hardest part in all this was trying to make a budget - where is the revenue coming from? Depending on the age of the department head, the predictions are all over the board. The younger guys think this will change the world. Us veterans are a little more cautious."

Is this a one-year deal? "Yes. The casino deal expires this year, so obviously, we will need to go out and seek new funding sources. If we can't prove that we can be a success, re-energize the public to come out, then the long-term viability of everything could be in question. This is an extremely important experiment."

In terms of funding, what long-term commitment do you have with the casinos to cooperate in this venture? "We don't look at the casinos. We look at the government. We have to prove as an industry that people want to see us. We have to prove we're worth saving. This is a three-quarter of a billion dollar business in New Jersey. It provides open spaces, farms, and hayfields. Between the two breeds [Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds], there's 7,000 jobs. If people want quality racing and bigger fields, we can deliver that."

Do you think the Monmouth 2010 model is one that racing will have to embrace in future years? "I hope it's a model that other states and tracks can follow. When my dad was racing in the 1960s and 1970s, you look at New Jersey racing, at East Coast racing, and there was room for Delaware and Garden State and Monmouth and Atlantic City. They all ran shorter meets. They didn't run on top of each other. It was the Golden Age of racing. The hard part is that you're a gypsy. We went to South Carolina every winter. I'd go weeks if not months without seeing my dad. It's hard for people to do it, but racing wasn't bankrupt. There was no casino or internet or lottery. We have to revisit our history and see what works."

How have the horsemen responded to this development in terms of stall applications from people who don't usually race at Monmouth? "The stall applications are stronger than we ever envisioned. The only influence you have on getting people to race is how many stalls you give people. We haven't turned down too many people in recent years. When you're able to cut down before they come, your racing product is much better. We're hoping to move field size up a horse or a horse and a half. We've got a core of great horsemen here."

Do you think Monmouth will replace Saratoga as the elite summer racing venue on the East Coast? "I would never think that. We need Saratoga to be the premier meet. I'm flattered people are saying that about us. But 40 percent of my business comes from New York racing. The better their racing, the better we do. I think we have to strengthen things across the board. Monmouth Park in June and July will complement Saratoga in July and August."

Greatest moments of career: "When Mr. Lennox gave me the job at such a young age. Then there was the 1987 Haskell [with Alysheba, Bet Twice, and Lost Code]. And the Breeders' Cup. It was unfortunate that it rained. But I felt like the industry was giving us a thank you for all the work we've done here over the years."

Best horse seen: "Not even close - Kelso. We had a barn in Aiken. Carl Hanford and Kelso were across the street from us. I saw him train every Saturday. I don't think anybody could do what he did. I wish we could do handicaps again. I wish the game had enough heart to let great horses get beat and still call them great."

Favorite thing to do outside racing: "Play golf poorly. I love listening to music. I listen to everything. I love live music. I'm a Bruce Springsteen nut. I've seen him all over the Jersey shore. He's got the best live band I've seen in my life."