The $50 million question

OCEANPORT, N.J. -- Monmouth Park is a bulwark against time. The stately 65-year-old racetrack peddles charm and tradition, and those wares have never faded here. Fresh coats of green and white paint are usually the only things required to spruce up the place every summer. And although the 2007 Breeders' Cup necessitated renovations and a few additions to the facility, the postcard-pretty racetrack has always offered satisfying continuity. Until now, of course.

The meet that begins Saturday is undoubtedly the most important in track history. By now, the particulars are well known -- 50 days with record purses of, on average, $1 million a day. Monmouth will race on a Friday-through-Sunday calendar, with three holiday Mondays, until Sept. 6.

Following the summer meet will be a 21-day fall meet, held on Saturdays and Sundays, offering purses of about $300,000 a day. Gone is the Meadowlands meet. Last year, Monmouth and Meadowlands hosted 141 racing days; purses averaged approximately $331,000 a day.

Announced in March, the plan has placed Monmouth squarely at the fore of American racing. Officially a one-year experiment, the meet will test many hypotheses, the main one being that, in today's industry, days ought to be traded for larger purses. While the purses are higher than last year by close to $10 million, they are packed into fewer days.

"I think the concept behind this -- 50 days, 50 million -- is pretty clear," said John Forbes, the longtime trainer and current president of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (NJTHA). "It's responding to what the customer is looking for: quality horses and decent-sized fields. We can't keep asking the customer to come out for seven-horse fields."

The idea is that less is more. The result of those record daily purses is supposed to be better horses and, because opportunities are fewer, large fields. In turn, larger handle and crowds are supposed to follow. Hence, more money for the state, which owns Monmouth. With fewer days, the expectation is that racing at Monmouth returns to its past and that of racing as a whole. That is, when the racetrack was the place to go.

Far too difficult to predict is how this will turn out. Making his way around the backstretch on a spring morning two weeks ago, Bob Kulina, the general manager of Monmouth, personified that uncertainty.

"I think everybody has this nervous anticipation," he said. Using his hands for emphasis, he asked the question on countless minds. "Is it going to work?"

"Now it's game time," he said. With a laugh, he said, "Can that rookie hit?"

The answer to that question shoulders unbelievable heft. This plan -- the brainchild of Dennis Drazin, the previous president of the horsemen's association, and Kulina -- has been nearly three years in the making. It is not a rash decision. As it turns out, Drazin and Kulina tried to establish it for the previous two meets.

However, the state lost $13 million on horse racing last year. The new administration of Gov. Chris Christie was immediately receptive to Drazin and Kulina's idea, in large part because it was looking for a fix for the industry. The idea was a clean break from the status quo. Christie's transition team issued a report on the problems facing the state's gaming industry and, in February, the governor convened a new commission tasked to figure out how to make the racetracks "self-sustaining." Drazin and Kulina presented that commission with a developed plan.

Plus, this year is the final allotment of the three-year, $90 million purse subsidy from the Atlantic City casinos, which is split in half between Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds. To get to that magic number for Monmouth, the Standardbred industry pitched in $7 million, some of which was from its half of the subsidy; they benefit from picking up prime fall days previously tied to the Meadowlands Thoroughbred meet. The state, in turn, guaranteed $43 million, which also includes some of the subsidy money.

The timing of this was the ultimate impetus for the state to finally agree to a guaranteed $50 million in purses.

"Everybody knows we don't have the funding for purses for next year," Kulina said. "We're going to have to prove we're worthy of funding and of continuing this industry. There's a lot at stake."

You could argue that what's at stake over the next three months is not only the fate of horse racing in New Jersey, but the direction of horse racing in this country. For if a beautiful summer venue like Monmouth, one of the few racetracks where crowds still turn out, offers lucrative purses and large fields of quality horses and cannot draw satisfactory business -- in terms of handle and attendance -- then what hope is there left for a vibrant game?

Elsewhere, New York and Maryland are navigating severe financial straits. Their hopes lie firmly with the expectations of slot machines, a route Monmouth did not pursue because of the casino subsidies. In general, the benefits of slots to racing appear as illusory as the jackpots they rarely cough up. Racinos like Philadelphia Park and Delaware Park hold races in the relative dark before largely empty grandstands. What happens on the track is frankly an afterthought. In some states, lawmakers have already started to reduce the cut from slot revenues set aside for racetracks.

From a mixture of political necessity and faith in its storied history, Monmouth has placed its fortunes on the backs of horses instead of slot machines. Drazin, a personal injury attorney who is a longtime breeder, owner, and supporter of New Jersey racing, sees this as a shot in the arm for a beleaguered industry.

"I think it's really going to change our future," he said in late March. At the time, Drazin, who had recently been confirmed as a member of the New Jersey Racing Commission, agreed to be interviewed from his experience as the former president of the horsemen's association and not as a state official. "It could revolutionize the industry and improve the game in this country."

Shortly after the plan was approved, Kulina quipped that "we are like Columbus, sailing off flat earth" in search of the New World. That would make Monmouth the Santa Maria. The New World, in the case of American horse racing, reflects what is already the standard overseas, in places such as Australia, Hong Kong, and Japan, where racing is usually held on weekends with exclusively large purses.

This, of course, is not foreign to the States, either. It was the old model of American racing and the most successful meets nowadays are Saratoga, Del Mar, and Keeneland. They share large purses, large crowds, and fewer days. Monmouth is about to do the same, but whereas those meets highlight yearlong racing calendars in their respective states, Monmouth is now the last line of defense - over the course of 71 days - for racing in the state.

"This isn't new," Kulina said. "Tracks have been talking about this for decades. We're just game enough to try this."

Precedent aside, Monmouth is still heading into uncharted waters. Handle, attendance, field size, and other important metrics could go in any direction. Monmouth generated $3.1 million in daily all-sources handle last year; its conservative budget estimate is for a 25 percent increase. Kulina said he would like to see average field size go from 7.5 to 9. Monmouth still garners sizeable crowds on holidays and Haskell Day. Could that apply every weekend this summer?

The first assumption of the whole plan was that the best outfits would show up. The condition book may make the heart skip a beat: Maiden special weights of $75,000 on down to $30,000 for nickel claimers, allowance races close to six figures, and overnight stakes of $100,000. If you give away big money they will come. And they have.

This was still hard to see two weeks ago. The backstretch was quiet and calm, and the usual faces were there and in the same places. On the surface, it felt like any past year.

There was still some uncertainty about who would show up, even though the list of newcomers who requested and received stalls was long: from California, Bob Hess Jr., Peter Miller, Mike Mitchell; from Delaware or Maryland, Dale Capuano, Mike Trombetta, Ferris Allen; from Kentucky, Mike Maker, Wesley Ward, Ian Wilkes; from New York, Mike Hushion, Rick Violette, Nick Zito; from everywhere, Steve Asmussen.

This does not include trainers such as Todd Pletcher, Tom Albertrani, Richard Dutrow Jr., Mark Hennig, and Kiaran McLaughlin, all of whom maintained second strings here for many years and have returned again, though this time with greater ammunition.

To accommodate so many new faces, the cap on stalls was lowered from 40 to 36. The biggest stables here, though, are still the regular New Jersey horsemen, who were given priority. They bravely approved the plan with the understanding that bigger purses were indivisible from greater competition.

"I think everybody's excited because the purses are so lucrative," Forbes said outside his barn one recent morning. He has long been supportive of the new schedule.

However, because the plan became official only two months before opening day, some trainers, Forbes said, feel they have not had enough time to tailor their stock to the new competition.

"Some of us are a little apprehensive about how well this will work because we have not had the lead time," he said. "There are some who may not have had the time to prepare."

Local horsemen will be challenged, Forbes said, and he thinks that is constructive. It was similar to something he said immediately after the March 8 meeting in which the NJTHA executive board approved the plan by a 7-2 vote.

"It's hard for our horsemen to be the first to bite the bullet and be the first to respond" to the changing marketplace, he said pointedly at the time. "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."

Asked about that, Forbes chuckled. He said that quote, along with his photo, had found its way onto a "Wanted Poster" at a local farm. He then turned toward the field in front of his shed row and pointed out a 3-year-old Arch colt. The name -- Bernie's Surprise -- was notably given by his owners, a partnership of Wall Street employees.

For horsemen in state, there was no alternative to a shortened meet. At the six-hour meeting March 8, when Monmouth and state officials made their formal pitch, horsemen discussed waiting a year to better prepare. After the formal pitch, however, that was simply not an option.

"It was pretty much an ultimatum - now or never," said Tim Hills, a member of the NJTHA's executive board, shortly after the meeting. "There was no Plan A or Plan B. You either support it or you're on your own."

Local horsemen desired protection from being crowded out, and they have been accommodated. Some claiming races, for instance, will have eligibility conditions attached to them. The same goes for New Jersey breeders, who are guaranteed at least 2.5 statebred races a day.

For the first time, Monmouth will pay to last; every horse is guaranteed $1,500 for running, in part to reflect the cost of shipping incurred by out-of-towners. At the same time, the winner's share of the purse has been reduced to 55 percent.

These ideas are being tested for the first time. The racing world turns its attention to Monmouth as laboratory and innovator. How other tracks respond, however, is yet another variable in this experiment. A turf war seems likely.

"Other tracks are going to try and discourage guys from shipping, especially New York," Hills said recently, seconding a familiar refrain on the backstretch in recent weeks.

Parochialism in racing is as old as the parimutuel system. It makes sense that other racing offices would protect their product. In New York and Delaware, the pressure on trainers to stay put is no longer subtle. As a way to stay somewhat competitive with Monmouth's purses, NYRA eliminated its overnight stakes for the current Belmont meet to increase money for its open-company races.

Aside from the uncertainty, there is visible excitement in the halls of the racing office and shed rows of the backstretch. It feels like a second opening day, different but certainly no less important than 1946. For a game struggling for answers, change is greeted.

"I'm excited about being here," said trainer Cam Gambolati, who has been based here over the years, while reading the condition book in his tack room on a recent morning. "If you got running horses, you find the right spot. . . . I think it's going to be more enjoyable this year. It had gotten stale - six horse fields, scratches, 3-5 shots."

Gambolati touched on something many people seem willing to finally admit. In recent years, you would walk through the parterres, box seats, or grandstand on a weekday and they were empty. And Monmouth is better than most racetracks. Weekends were slightly better; people still care about watching live races here. But the emptiness felt like a prolonged wake. Nobody will dispute that the malaise is even thicker elsewhere.

Almost three years ago, Kulina approached Drazin in the stands one day. They both cared deeply about Monmouth. Kulina, 60, grew up on the circuit with his father, Joe, who trained in the golden era of New Jersey racing. Kulina began working at Monmouth in 1972 and became racing secretary in 1976.

That day, he asked Drazin to remove his many hats and, as a fan alone, what did he want to see out on the track?

"The best horses in the country for the best money," Drazin said.

As Drazin remarked of Kulina, "He was somewhat disillusioned about the product on the track. He asked, 'Is there a way to fix this?' "

That was the genesis. Drazin soon proposed the parallelism of 50 and 50. And so the plan they put forward over the next three years is their answer to that question.

"We became a grind operation, and the grind came to a halt," Kulina said. And the way to fix racing: "We need it to be special again."

Like any general manager, Kulina is outwardly pragmatic but lets slip a guarded optimism. He believes there is still much life left in racing, and Monmouth, a place where you are forever reminded of racing's golden past, will be the harbinger of that conviction. Horse racing is, after all, the best gambling game man ever created. Time will tell if this bet is a winning one.