05/08/2014 1:35PM

Transitional meet opens with Decathlon Stakes

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OCEANPORT, N.J. – The Monmouth Park meet opens Saturday for what promises to be another transitional racing season on the Jersey Shore.

The meet kicks off with a 12-race card starting at 12:50 p.m. Eastern. The $75,000 Decathlon Stakes for sprinters tops the first of 57 programs through Sept. 28.

Monmouth will race Saturday and Sunday in May, as well as Memorial Day. The schedule expands to Friday through Sunday in June.

The $1 million Haskell Invitational for 3-year-olds July 27 again tops the stakes program. The Haskell and the United Nations Stakes, the meet’s two Grade 1 stakes, are back on television this year. The Haskell airs on NBC; the United Nations will be seen on Fox Sports 1.

The transitional theme comes up year after year as Monmouth struggles to maintain its standing without slots or casino revenues to support purses. After two chaotic seasons, this year offers a different view of the track’s future.

This is the third year that Darby Development and the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association will run Monmouth after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie decided the state would abruptly exit the racetrack business.

The 2012 season was a scramble as the new management team hastily assumed the reins.

Last year was cloaked in uncertainty as Monmouth and the surrounding communities struggled to rebuild after Superstorm Sandy.

For 2014, the focus is squarely on reshaping the Monmouth tract of land into a full-fledged entertainment venue.

The first phase debuted last year with the opening of a miniature golf course. The 2015 season will mark the debut of a 7,500-seat venue for summer concerts and a stand-alone restaurant. The racetrack, miniature golf course, restaurant, and concert amphitheater will be linked by a Jersey Shore-style boardwalk.

Long-range plans envision a hotel and a water theme park.

The first phase of construction on the concert venue will be visible this summer.

“Monmouth Park is well positioned to not only have a successful year, but we are going to preserve Monmouth Park for our grandchildren,” said Dennis Drazin, the chief advisor to both the horsemen and Darby Development.

Monmouth management is hopeful of seeing progress this summer on removing the legal and regulatory hurdles preventing exchange wagering and sports betting.

Many features, both old and new, are more concrete.

Fans can expect the traditional Monmouth experiences – from the barbecue grills in the picnic area at the top of the stretch to the swank parterre boxes atop the clubhouse.

A new sports bar, sponsored by William Hill, opens Saturday on the grandstand level.

A different voice occupies the announcer’s booth with Travis Stone replacing Larry Collmus, who is now the racecaller at Churchill Downs.

Monmouth will offer 50-cent trifectas for the first time. The Jersey Shore Six, similar to the Rainbow Six at Gulfstream, returns with a 10-cent base price.

Monmouth will soon open a new offtrack betting parlor about 60 miles away in Hillsborough, N.J.

On the racing front, president Bob Kulina hopes a new participation bonus will improve the quality of the product while boosting average field size.

Owners will be paid a minimum of $700 for every non-New Jersey-bred dirt starter and $500 for every open turf runner. Trainers get a $300 bonus for every non-statebred starter regardless of surface.

New Jersey-breds can compete in restricted statebred races or vie for a 40 percent bonus against open company.

“I know we’ll have a fuller stable area than the last few years,” Kulina said. “The response from the horsemen has been positive. I think the product will be stronger. We should have over 1,500 horses here in July when the Churchill Downs meet ends.”