Commentary

Don't ever count Monmouth Park out

The historic New Jersey track has to get creative without slot revenues

Updated: May 9, 2014, 10:33 AM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

They put on their game faces at the the annual press conference they held Tuesday to kick off the 2014 meet at Monmouth Park. Ask any track executive and they will tell you they are optimistic about the meet that begins Saturday, about the future and that these are exciting times for the classy racetrack on the Jersey Shore. It's not that they're lying; it's that they're conveniently skipping over the messy parts.

These are in fact difficult times for one of the sport's crown jewels. To be in one of the few states up and down the east coast without revenues from alternative gaming has put Monmouth at a huge disadvantage. Bettors want to bet on full fields and classy horses. The way you get big fields and good horses is to offer fat purses. For slots tracks, that's easy. For Monmouth, it's a huge challenge, and one they haven't always overcome.

We'll do what we have to do to survive.

-- Dennis Drazin, Monmouth advisor
The track loses money and the only way it can put out a decent racing product is to limit its season to 57 days at Monmouth plus14 days of turf racing at the Meadowlands. It's far from a perfect situation, but it allows Monmouth to survive and hope for better days.

"We'll do what we have to do to survive," said Dennis Drazin, an advisor to the management group that runs the track, a group that includes the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "Monmouth Park will never close under my watch."

Don't doubt him for a minute. Drazin is among the more driven and creative executives in the industry and he absolutely loves Monmouth Park. Teaming up with long-time track general manager Bob Kulina, they realized there were plenty of areas of the track that sat empty and could be put to use. Starting slowly, they put in a mini-golf course. Next year, they will add a concert amphitheater that holds 7,500 fans, an upscale restaurant and a boardwalk. These ancillary businesses will create revenue that will go toward operating costs and purses.

"These other businesses benefit racing to the extent that, first of all, you have to make a profit and cover your expenses," Drazin said. "The money will first and foremost help with our operational costs because we need to have money for operations to survive, but a sliver also goes to purses. There is a formula that basically takes 20 percent out of these extra things that we're doing and sliding it over to the purse structure. "

So if you blow $20 on the ring toss on the Monmouth boardwalk a small part of that will go toward purses.

Drazin and his right-hand man Bob Kulina project that the revenue from the new on-track businesses can make operating the track a break-even proposition. But they are hoping for much better than that.

The money will first and foremost help with our operational costs because we need to have money for operations to survive, but a sliver also goes to purses.

-- Dennis Drazin, Monmouth advisor
Like everyone else that doesn't have slot machines they want slot machines. New Jersey racing doesn't have them because political forces friendly to the Atlantic City casino industry won't allow in-state competition. But the conventional wisdom is that with business so bad in Atlantic City sooner or later the state government will have no choice but to expand gaming.

Drazin has also been fighting hard to have sports betting legalized at the state's racetracks and casinos. If that ever happened, it might be a gold mine for the sport. The first few rounds in court have been lost and the case has now been presented to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to decide before the end of June whether or not it will take the case.

They may or may not get sports betting. They may or may not get slots. But what is certain is they won't give up when many others would have long ago.

Monmouth is different. It is run by people who love horse racing and can't bear to see a racetrack with so much history and charm be bulldozed over, replaced by a condo development.

"For those of us at Monmouth it's all about the love of the game," Drazin said.

Too many racing managements are driven by nothing more than the bottom line and/or their devotion to their beloved casinos, and that's not good for the sport.

You can't root hard enough for these guys.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com

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