Monmouth Park

Monmouth Park
by John Piesen, and published in the June 2010 edition of American Turf Monthly

The focus of the racing world this year will be on Monmouth Park...and, what else, it will be all about the money.
Starting on May 22, Monmouth will run an average of 12 races a day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Labor Day, a total of 50 racing dates.

And the average daily purses for those 50 days will be $1 million!

That figure triples the $331,000 in mid-March of this revolutionary move, many of the most accomplished trainers in North America were on the horn with Monmouth officials to request stalls.

You want names? Here are the names:

For starters -- Steve Asmussen, Todd Pletcher, Tom Amoss, John Sadler, Rick Dutrow, Angel Penna Jr., Steve Margolis, Patrick Biancone, Kiaran McLaughlin, Bill Badgett, Chad Brown, Bruce Brown, Peter Miller...and Bob Baffert.

'We're confident,' says Dennis Robinson, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority CEO, '...that this new racing schedule, coupled with the nation's highest purses, will breathe new life into the racing industry, and become a new foundation for racing, breeding and tourism in the Garden State.

'This is a game-changer,' Robinson adds, 'not just for racing in New Jersey, but for the entire region. The longevity of the racing season is nearly identical to what it's been recently, but with fewer dates and the highest purses in the country, we're more than a little optimistic that significant gains in attendance, handle and field size will be on the horizon.'

Sure, enough. A look at the first condition book shows $75,000 maiden-specials, and $80,000 entry-level allowances, compared to $38,000 and $41,000, respectively, in '09. The purses for overnight stakes likewise have been spiked from $50,000 and $60,000 to $100,000.

What do these numbers mean to the bettors?

'Everything,' says long-time trainer Greg Sacco.

'It will mean full fields of quality horses, trained by quality trainers, ridden by quality jockeys,' he says.

'It will be good for the state, good for the track, good for the horsemen, good for our simulcast signal, and, most important, good for the public.

'Horsemen better buckle up because every race is going to count.

'If racing is going to survive in this economic climate,' Sacco adds, 'we (Jersey) needed to make a bold move. If it works, great, if not we're back to square one. Racing is at a crossroads now. I join most horsemen, big and small, in supporting this move.'

John Mazza is one of those small trainers who support the move. 'I race mostly Jersey-breds, and that can only help the Jersey breeding industry. 'We (Jersey racing) are losing $13 million a year. Something had to be done. If you don't bring a better product to the table, the people won't bet.'

'This is a breath of fresh air,' says LeRoy Jolley, a two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer and member of the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame. 'In fact, this is the best thing to happen for racing in years. For the last 20 years, our horses, players and facilities have been over-taxed. 'I don't know whose idea this was. But whosever it was, I think he may have saved racing.'

With the long-promised closing of The Meadowlands' fall thoroughbred meet, there will be only 71 racing dates in Jersey this year compared to 141 in '09. But those numbers are a bit misleading since there will be an average of 12 races a day this year at Monmouth compared to an average of nine in '09.

'The potential is enormous,' Monmouth general manager Bob Kulina told Daily Racing Form. 'Instead of looking at another $5,000 claimer with six horses, now it's how many overnight stakes can we schedule.

'We're trying to finalize different ways to distribute the purses so that every one can participate.

'It costs a lot to ship to the East Coast. That's why we're going to pay back to last place.

'If we can help offset some of the cost of a guy who needs to ship from, say, Delaware, a guy is less likely to scratch if he's 15-1 in a race, and not leave the players with a small field. 'It's a gamble, but one we had to take.'

In addition to luring star trainers from across the land, the big Monmouth money will attract the big-name national riders, notably Garrett Gomez, the California-based Eclipse Award winner, who automatically becomes the favorite to win the riding title -- especially since he'll be riding first-call for Baffert.

Otherwise, we can expect some of the big New York names -- John Velazquez, Ramon Dominguez, and Edgar Prado -- to make the trip from Long Island and Saratoga on a regular basis for stakes engagements.

The local jockey colony will be headed by Jersey Joe Bravo, a 13-time leading rider at the Shore; Elvis Trujillo and Eddie Castro, who finished one-two last year with 129 and 113 winners, respectively, and Chuck Lopez, a perennial top gun at the Shore.
Daniel Centeno, fifth in the '09 standings at Monmouth, and, more recently, the top gun at Tampa Bay Downs, won't be back. He will be at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, PA, where he will ride first call for trainer Jamie Ness.

But Eibar Coa, who made his reputation at Monmouth before going to New York, will be back full-time at Monmouth, as will Chris DeCarlo, who will be represented by Frank Sanabria, who repped Angel Cordero Jr., and Jose Santos in their salad days.

The 10 top Monmouth trainers from '09 will be back -- from Bruce Levine, Scott Volk and Jason Servis down to Kelly Breen, Ed Broome and Sacco -- as will regulars Ben Perkins Jr., Tim Hills, John Forbes, Mary Hartman, Amy Tarrant, and J. Willard Thompson.

One thing that won't change at this Monmouth stand will be the emphasis on early speed.

The Monmouth dirt strip always has been regarded as a speed-favoring surface, and that's not going to change no matter how much they upgrade the quality of racing.

And it will be interesting to see if Joe Bravo, still going strong at 38 and in good health after a spill-free year, continues to dominate the grass racing, always an important part of the Monmouth experience.

And it will be especially interesting to see how this one-year experiment at Monmouth Park works out.

The racing world awaits answers.


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