Welcome to this week’s edition of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track.
Each Tuesday in this space we will spotlight the most meaningful story of the past week, detailing a story that will stand out because of its importance or perhaps the emotional response it will generate.
Looking ahead, if you believe there’s a story this week that should be featured in next Tuesday’s edition of the Main Track, let us know by tweeting it to @ABRLive using the hashtag #ABRMainTrack.
As for this week, our featured story is report on the opening weekend at Monmouth Park and the New Jersey track’s struggle to stay afloat without an alternative source of gaming revenue.
It should not have been much of a surprise that on Saturday, when another season of racing at Monmouth Park broke from the starting gate, it was a dark, cold, rainy day at the Jersey Shore.
After a 2016 season that included a 26-percent drop in handle, a defeat at the state’s voting booths for a proposal to open new casinos that would have provide revenue for the racing industry and legal blockades to keeping sports betting at bay, it seemed somewhat apropos.
“It was probably the worst weather for an opening day that I’ve seen,” said John Heims, Monmouth’s in-house counsel and director of media relations.
Yet the very next day, Mother’s Day served as a microcosm of the indomitable spirit woven into the fight being waged by track operator Darby Development LLC to keep Monmouth competitive with neighboring tracks that have casino revenue to bolster their bottom lines.
A crowd of 11,959 turned out for the Sunday card, fueling optimism for a bounce-back meet.
“It was great to see that many people on track,” Heims said. “It was a great Mother’s Day for us. Monmouth is one of those tracks that continues to draw good crowds. It’s a wonderful facility that people want to visit. It’s a hot spot on the Jersey Shore.
“Overall, despite the weather there were some good things that happened last weekend. It was probably the worst possible weather for an opening day but we did have some good things happen on the racetrack. [Jockey] Trevor McCarthy got his 1,000th victory Saturday, winning the Wolf Hill Stakes with Rainbow Heir. He’s such a great person. He’s so appreciative of everything and works so hard. It was nice to see that happen. The Haskell sisters, Isabelle de Tomaso and Hope Haskell Jones, won a couple of races, so it was a nice start.”
While Monmouth cut its racing dates from 56 to 50 to keep purses at the same level as 2016 (there will be 21 days at the Meadowlands afterward), Heims is hopeful that enhancements in Monmouth’s dining options will encourage more fans to spend a spring or summer afternoon at the track.
With Monmouth handing its own concessions, new food and beverage choices include Strollo’s Lighthouse Homemade Italian Ice and the Lexington-based Kentucky Ale. In addition, in news that will only heighten trainer Bob Baffert’s interest in winning the Haskell for a ninth time, his beloved Max’s Famous Hot Dogs will be available at a couple of locations on the racetrack grounds.
Adjacent to the facility, Monmouth’s popular Blu Grotto Ristorante has recently added a beer garden for track patrons eager to unwind after a day at the races.
“We think food and beverage will make a big difference for us and will help build the on-track crowds,” Heims said.
This year will also mark the second year of exchange wagering at Monmouth in conjunction with Betfair. Extremely popular in Europe, exchange wagering allows gamblers to lock in odds, lay bets against a horse winning and make wagers while the race is progress.
“Exchange wagering has so many people in Europe talking about it and it’s the new wave in wagering. We were at the forefront of it here in the United States, and a lot of the credit for that goes to Dennis Drazin [adviser to Darby Development]. Without him, I don’t think we’re in business right now. He’s made a lot of things happen.
“There might have been a slow start with exchange wagering, but change is often feared in horse racing. I think it’s going to work out in the long run. In the short term, Betfair is putting in the time and effort to make it work.”
While expanded casino wagering was voted down last year, Heims is supremely confident that sports betting will eventually overcome legal hurdles and become available at Monmouth to give the track the financial boost tracks in nearby states get from alternative sources of revenue, such as slot machines.
“The United States Supreme Court is still deciding whether it will hear the appeal of the judge’s decision blocking sports betting, but the way things are moving, I believe it’s a question of when, not if, in regards to us getting sports betting,” Heims said. “Either the courts will act or Congress will act, but it will happen. At one point, we were so close to getting sports betting that we printed the betting slips, but a judge stopped it. Trust me, we will be ready day one when it happens, and it will be huge for us. You probably have to go to Illinois to find the nearest state without alternative gaming revenue and that’s a long way to go.”
It surely is and that distance of ground also reflects the long and bumpy road Monmouth Park has traveled in recent years.
It was a struggle last year and this past Saturday on opening day as well, but at least Sunday brought a new day, better weather and the hope that a brighter future awaits on the Jersey Shore.
THE ALSO-ELIGIBLE LIST
Here’s some of the other stories that made for a lively week in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry: