by | 11.17.2010 | 12:48am

By Ray Paulick As president of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horseman's Association, trainer John Forbes has been an advocate of the “less is more” philosophy that led to the 50-day/$50-million Monmouth Park meeting this summer. Forbes, 63, believes the shortened meeting is an appropriate response to what horseplayers are looking for—bigger fields of higher quality horses—but also understands that unless new revenue sources are found that it will be difficult to repeat in 2011 and beyond. Midway through the meeting, an advisory commission appointed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie issued its report on “New Jersey Gaming, Sports and Entertainment: An Economic Recovery Plan for the State of New Jersey,” which called for sweeping reforms that include the closing of Meadowlands racetrack for live racing and possible privatization of Monmouth Park. (Click here to read the report.) Forbes discussed the present and future state of racing in the Garden State. How do you think the Monmouth Park “experimental” 50-day meeting has gone? We think it has been very successful–certainly by the numbers it has been. Our transmissions (simulcast business) are up 130%? Onsite we are up around 25-30%. You look at states where they do have casino gaming, states where there is a huge influx of purse money from gaming—places like Philadelphia Park—and nobody is betting on their product. That's a real danger sign. How did it evolve? It was Dennis Drazin's concept. Dennis was president of the horsemen's organization, and two years ago he had the foresight to say, 'This casino payout is going to run out.' The casinos were telling everyone racing doesn't have a business plan that works. Dennis lobbied everyone in New Jersey—one on one with horsemen and (Monmouth Park executive Robert) Kulina came aboard. Dennis said if we could do something dramatic to show that racing could survive, we would be in a much better position to prove it adds great value to the state economy. If not for Dennis Drazin, this would not have happened. The customer had spoken and we weren't doing what the customer wants. Dennis said customers want bigger fields and better quality, and if we don't supply that, something's wrong with us—not the customer. We got the message but didn't do anything about it until Dennis stepped forward. He said let's find out by giving them bigger, better fields and see if that is a business plan the bettor is interested in. It certainly wasn't meant as a challenge to other jurisdictions. Have horsemen embraced it? After all, from an owner's perspective, short fields make it easier to win a check. Dennis was able to convince the (THA) board that you're hopefully not going to be running in short fields, but you'll have twice the purse money–from $37,000 to $75,000 for maidens. But we also decided to pay $1,500 back to last place. Some don't think that's a good idea, but our position was that owners put a lot into racing and often don't get anything back. A professional baseball player can strike out four times in a game and still get paid; the $1,500 back to last place says to the owner, 'You're going to get paid if you show up.' From a personal standpoint, it's gotten tougher to win races, and if we do this again we've got to go out and get some better horses. I'd look at the program for a maiden race and see $75,000 for the purse and wonder if that's a misprint. But then I'd see Todd Pletcher, or Kiaran McLaughlin or Shug McGaughey with a horse in there, and it's tough to win against those guys. If our people complained, we'd say, 'This is what the fans want: good horses.' You said 'if we do this again.' What is the plan for 2011 and beyond, especially in the face of the commission's report to the governor suggesting racing has to stand on its own? I don't think Gov. Christie in any way wants to do away with the racing industry in New Jersey. He doesn't want it to disappear on his watch. What he would like to see is for it to stand on its own and do what can be done to help the industry stop generating red ink for the New Jersey Sports Authority. We'll try to preserve the kind of meet we had this year, funded through whatever means we can come up with. Dennis Drazin is now the chairman of the New Jersey Racing Commission, and his task is going to be to find a way to generate enough income for racing to put the best product out there. Can we generate $140 million in purses for 140 days? I don't think so. Dennis will be the one trying to put together a solution—whether it's privatization of Monmouth, building out our OTB system, casino money, whatever. The onus is on us to put a good product out there if we are not going to get slots. If we can do that, we'll go to the head of the class in terms of responding to customers. Dennis's task is to put something together that works for the state and works for racing. Without his involvement, not a lot is going to move forward. He is a hard worker, loves racing and believes in New Jersey. I think we'll get it done for next year and think we'll put something in place. Whether or not racing gets anything from the casinos remains to be seen. What position are the casinos taking? They don't want to pay us off any longer to not lobby for slots. That's what the subsidy is about: We had to sign an agreement that we wouldn't lobby for slots. The casinos decided they didn't want to do that any more. It comes down to casinos being very powerful politically, and their most fervent wish is that there be no horse racing in New Jersey. They have not been shy about that. They have been vocal, they have been like a broken record, saying, 'Racing is dead, racing is dying.' Donald Trump said, 'Why would you want to help a dying industry?' It's been a mantra of 'get rid of racing, get rid of racing.' It doesn't come down to much more than that in New Jersey.  It's a continuing battle between the casinos and racing, and it's gotten down to where it's a more serious threat than ever before. The casinos opened up in 1976, around the same time as the Sports Authority was created. The Sports Authority success was predicated on the racing product. It's the only thing it's made money on. It's the coal that still burns. The report itself acknowledges that in 1976 horse racing had an 81% share of the gaming dollar in New Jersey. That share has been reduced to 2%. The report acknowledges that racing lost its share to the casinos. The casinos were responsible. So in essence, the casinos took down horse racing and in the process the casinos took down the Sports Authority. When it didn't have revenue from racing, the Sports Authority couldn't make ends meet. It's been a struggle. Off the beaten path, let's rewind to 1984 when Bob Brennan rebuilt Garden State Park—the racetrack of the 21st century. He decided the best way to handle Delaware Valley was to also buy Keystone—which he renamed Philadelphia Park. He then put in a bid for Monmouth Park—which was being put up for sale. The state—the Sports Authority envisioned Brennan taking the horses from Garden State on to Monmouth and back to Philadelphia. That would leave the Sports Authority with no racing in the fall. So they purchased Monmouth Park to stop Brennan from taking their Meadowlands product. So that's how the state got into racing by buying Monmouth. Fast forward to today to where the casinos have undone racing and the Sports Authority and we have a governor who says, 'Why did we get in racing in the first place?' We said it was the state's idea. The Sports Authority is drowning in red ink. They lose money on everything there: the convention center, they rebuilt Rutgers, they've got an aquarium. But we hear about the problem with racing because the casinos have a motive to get us out of Meadowlands. So you can imagine the turmoil that has ensued when the commission report to the governor suggested just that: get rid of racing. Or have racing 'stand on its own.' What is the political landscape? I don't think the governor has any plans to let racing die. The Senate president recently said he didn't want horse racing to disappear. One of the recommendations of the committee was to have no more Thoroughbred racing at Meadowlands for the moment, I think the Thoroughbred industry can accept that, but details have to be worked out. If we do a 71-day meet, we don't really need the Meadowlands, but if we go back to 141 days we'll need it. Are you optimistic there will be a solution? On our side of the fence, we are not crying about the situation as much as we are trying to do something. We have to deal with a viciously greedy casino industry that says racing shouldn't be on the receiving end of anything. There has been so much excitement at Monmouth Park, among the people who work there, the horsemen, and the fans. There's still some soul in racing, and we lose some of that soul at tracks when there's no one there. I refuse to believe there's not a renaissance in the sport that we can hope for or nurture.   Copyright © 2010, Blenheim Publishing, LLC   Savvy businesses recognize value. Advertise in the Paulick Report.

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