One of the most interesting and encouraging developments of the young 2010 racing season was the recent announcement in New Jersey that Monmouth Park will slash the number of racing days but increase daily average purses to $1 million—the highest ever in the United States for a regularly scheduled race meeting. A daily average of $1 million is roughly triple the daily purses offered in previous years at Monmouth Park.
Most weeks, Monmouth will run Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, offering 12 races per day, rather than a more traditional Wednesday-Sunday schedule. A weekends only fall meeting at Monmouth will replace the previous Meadowlands Thoroughbred meeting.
How to pay for this? A large chunk of the money, $20 million, comes in the way of a subsidy from the New Jersey casino association, a deal that expires this year. The hope of New Jersey Sports and Exposition and Monmouth Park officials is that higher quality racing with bigger fields will substantially increase handle. Average daily handle in New Jersey has dropped from $5 million to $3.2 million over the last five years.
Longtime Monmouth Park executive Robert J. Kulina, the track's vice president and general manager, talked with the Paulick Report about how he is planning to put Monmouth Park back on the map of major league racetracks.
This is a pretty dramatic step. Reminds me of the lyrics to Neil Young's “My My Hey Hey”—“it's better to burn out than to fade away.” Is that that the scenario you felt as though you were facing with New Jersey racing?
You're the second one to mention that great song. It's true. First of all I don't think any other state would have had the horsemen that allowed us to entertain this concept. It's almost been two years we've been working on this.
It boils down to a couple of things. Everybody in the industry understands what we are doing is not working. I liken our industry to Detroit, where the auto industry is almost gone. They had a monopoly, we had a monopoly and it's not working. This is the last year of our purse supplement (from New Jersey casinos). We needed to come up with a model to show the racing can be successful and give us a vehicle to ask for future funding for purses. If we went with the same day-in and day-out cards, the reality for additional funding would be more doubtful. It's a big picture thing. Dennis Drazin (former New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association president), myself and John Forbes (current NJ THA president), we talked about any number of dates scenarios. Finally we decided we wanted to cut it to the point where there would be were no excuses left; it's the least common denominator, with the hope being that in the future we can add. I am very appreciative of the horsemen. There was a lot of hard work on their part.
Did you look outside of the United States? This looks an awful like what Japan or Hong Kong is doing.
There are no geniuses here. Less is better. We looked at foreign models. We added the fall dates to see if there would be any life at Monmouth that time of year. It's been 30 years or more since we raced that late at Monmouth. For one year, it's something we had to do, but there are a lot of negotiations, a lot of issues that still need to be resolved.
You've said you need to double handle to sustain these purses of a million a day. What are the realistic chances of that?
That's not what I said. My projections were soft, 20% to 25% increases. What I tried to allude to is that Saratoga is still the best in the country. We looked at the model–$13 million in daily handle at Saratoga). We are at $3.2 million. Somewhere I said can I grow toward that Saratoga number. Can I double my number this year? I don't know. We made very soft projections just to maintain where we were: 20% increases on live handle, 20% on transmission of races, and that's adding two or three races per day, ans assuming our field size will increase from under 7.5 horses per race to 8.75 or maybe nine. We think we'll sell more races to California. Philadelphia Park won't be running on Sundays, so how much can we pick up there? It's a big gamble.
In 1970s when I was racing secretary here and New York was dark on Tuesdays, I'd put an overnight stakes on Tuesdays and we were doing $3 million a day in handle just in that building.
One thing that's important to understand is that I want the other guys to have a good product, because I'm selling bets on it. I want racing across the country to be strong and good and competitive. I think one of our problems is that we are trying to become a slot machine in our wagering mentality.
Have you put more into the marketing budget?
We're doing a lot of new things. We've had success adding events the last few years. We've had a crab cake event, we're adding a jazz and blues festival, adding a burger event with the Newark Star-Ledger on Memorial Day weekend. We are doing more food events, adding a second music event. We've reintroduced the Monmouth County Hunt meet and believe that can become a big event. These things take two or three years to build. There are 16 weekends during this time and we're trying to create an event every weekend. There is a lot of excitement among people who are lapsed fans. The upside can be big; I remember what it's like to have 17,000 here every Saturday.
In addition we are real close to getting the Haskell televised on ABC, a one-hour show. You know we have a record of trying to be aggressive with our 3-year-olds.
What's the impact on the stakes program?
Mostly minor things. Our graded stakes are right at $5 million, pretty much the same as before. We're bringing the Meadowlands Cup to Monmouth and running the Pegasus as a Haskell prep. Our overnight stakes, something I created a long time ago, will start at $100,000. We are really focusing on the high end.
I have a great relationship with the horsemen, and they bought into the concept. We're now trying to work on the purse schedule. Part of the plan is to put meaningful money back to last place. Right now we are talking about $2,000 for the last-place horse. That's a lot of money. Too many small owners can't make it, and just because you're small doesn't mean you're not good. If you can run a horse, and you perform, the $2,000 helps pay some of the training and offsets part of your losses. We'll try to stop people from abusing the system by running just for $2,000.
You can't finalize your purses until you write the condition books. We're still working on it, but the purses are going to be very good at all levels. The first condition book is almost finished. It'll be on our website soon.
What's been the immediate reaction?
The stall applications look like when I started in 1977 as racing secretary, and it's a who's who of American racing. There are a lot of interesting things going on.
The comments on blogs from different people have been very encouraging. The game needs to do something different, and a lot of people are wishing us good luck. Hopefully, we can find something that works. There's a lot of hope and enthusiasm out there.
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