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Monday, September 26, 2005

Jersey Beat

- Monmouth Park’s 2005 meeting is in the history books and New Jersey thoroughbred racing moves to the Meadowlands on Friday. Attendance was actually up 2% from last year, which seems like a reason in and of itself for jubilant celebration; the average of 9,093 is a number their neighbors at NYRA would be envious of. However, the betting handle was down, 8.5% on track, and a whopping 14.4% in total. [Bloodhorse]

The handle decline came despite purses that were fattened by Atlantic City casinos in their effort to forestall the installation of slots at racetracks, and NJ Sports Authority CEO George Zoffinger sounded perplexed when he told the Asbury Park Press: "We're down in betting and I'm very disappointed….We did everything we could do to improve the racing product. Everybody told me a year ago it was all about purses."

But the track suffered from a turf course that was in such poor condition that races were routinely switched to the main track even when the weather was sunny and the main track fast. 46 races in all were switched, and the course was shut down altogether after Labor Day for a complete refurbishing that is scheduled to be completed in time for the 2006 meet, and with an eye towards the 2007 Breeders Cup. Handle was also negatively affected by the cutting off of some rebate shops.

Zoffinger also bitterly referred to a plan to sell Monmouth and the Meadowlands that was scrapped when NJ Governor James McGreevey resigned and was replaced by current Acting Governor Richard Codey.

"I had them sold for $325 million…..That was an initial offer, and could easily have gone higher if bidding took place. Today I'm not sure I could get $225 million for them."
Looking ahead to 2007, when the subsidies from the casinos expire and slots will presumably be ensconced at tracks in New York and Pennsylvania, the discussion turned to the familiar desperate pleas for slots to save the industry in New Jersey.

But Bill Handleman, the excellent columnist for the APP, opines in a separate column that things may not be as bleak as the numbers make them out to be, saying that the difference between this summer and last summer cannot be quantified. Handleman asserts that with the “for sale” signs removed and new management in place, the atmosphere amongst and between employees and patrons was far healthier.
Maybe that's why the racing seemed slightly better than it was a year ago, ever so slightly. Maybe that's why the lost turf races didn't infuriate people the way they did last summer.

That's what attitude does.
Dennis Dowd is the new head racing guy at the Sports Authority, and he says that you can’t underestimate the effect of the lost turf racing on the betting handle, especially at simulcast facilities.
"It permeates the whole card when you lose turf races and it impacts all your multi-race wagers.

"If I've invested time in handicapping thinking there is turf racing, and I come to the track and they're off the turf, that time spent handicapping is wasted. If that happens a lot at a particular track, I'm more likely to move my attention to a track where that's not occurring."
Democratic Senator Jon Corzine is widely expected to be the next governor of the state come November, and Handleman is hoping that he stays the course put in place by his interim predecessor.
If Corzine listens to Codey, he will surely refrain from selling or leasing the racetracks at a time like this, with the Breeders' Cup coming in 2007, with the prospect of off-track wagering parlors finally becoming a reality before then, with the inevitability of slots at the racetracks.

While there are those who may still want to go strictly by the numbers and bottom-line the state out of the racetrack business altogether, it seems as if there is now a strong argument to go the other way. And in its own un-quantifiable way, it got a little stronger this summer at Monmouth Park.
- Thoroughbred racing at the Meadowlands has become more and more of a burden to the Sports Authority over the years as attendance has plummeted; the harness product has proven to be far more popular there. At one time, the flats ran from Labor Day through the end of the year; last year it ran just five weeks, and this year it will go from Sept 30 – Nov 12, enabling them to bring the trotters back the following week with a bang, hosting seven Breeders Crown races on the weekend of Nov 18th. It seems like a different millennium (and it was, actually) when I saw Seattle Slew upset by Dr. Patches there before a packed screaming house in 1978.


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