History Made At Far Hills As Steeplechase Joins The NJ Horse Race Betting Scene

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The Far Hills Race Meeting steeplechase event dates back to 1916. Its predecessor event, the Essex Hunt in Montclair, launched in 1870.

But in this long and (mostly) proud history, never was legal betting permitted — until Saturday.

The numbers are now in, and betting operator Dennis Drazin of Monmouth Park fame seems justified in calling the experiment “a success.”

A total of $210,751 was wagered on the horses at the site by 35,000 or so people.

Steeplechase betting in context

Drazin tells NJ Online Gambling that in 2018 Monmouth Park’s weekend summer meets averaged $398,863 in handle per day.

At first glance, it looks like the steeplechase did about half as well. But with only seven races, Far Hills attracted about $30,000 per race. Monmouth tended to offer 9 to 12 races, so this novelty steeplechase experiment produced about three-quarters as much betting interest per race as a typical Monmouth Park day.

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Drazin makes an important point that in spite of some news coverage of the new betting offering, many regulars to the steeplechase wouldn’t even have been aware of the option. Quite a few attendees are too busy partying. (Full disclosure: I attended this event once as a young man, and I can verify the party atmosphere and will note that at no point did I ever notice any horses. Organizers ramped up their clamp-down on over-exuberance five years ago.)

“The numbers were good for a first-time effort, and we can grow from here,” said Drazin.

The event is the biggest of the year for the National Steeplechase Association, with a year’s high of $850,000 in purses. The highlight was the $450,000 Grand National, won this year by Jury Duty in a contested finish.

Money in, money out

The addition of giant new TV screens and underground fiber-optic wires left organizers unsure whether this year’s meet will be profitable, but those are sunk costs than can be taken off the balance sheet in future years.

Tens of millions has been raised over the years for local charities, especially nearby RWJBarnabas Health hospital.

If there was one disappointing number, it was the offsite betting handle, which was just under $145,000. Monmouth Park’s cards — popular for wagering across the state, the U.S., and the United Kingdom and elsewhere — often produce almost 10 times the on-track handle offsite, but the steeplechase didn’t come close to that.

Drazin said he believes there was a good level of awareness in Europe among the steeplechase insiders, but he’s not as sure if the top bettors there were plugged in. There’s little doubt that subsequent steeplechase cards will build from those numbers.

Not so ‘shore’ about this one

The impetus for adding sports betting to the steeplechase first came up more than five years ago when the Atlantic City Alliance came up with the idea to host horse races on the beach there in the manner of the Palio event, a 700-year-old tradition in Siena, Italy.

While the horses race a half-mile around the town square in Siena, the AC plan was for a three-quarter mile straightaway.

Wait, horses racing on the beach, in the shadow of the Atlantic Ocean? Really?

The event never happened, but Drazin said it’s not impossible to revive. He said a straightaway proved untenable, but figure-8 steeplechase races could be held. It’s just an expensive venture — like $1 million expensive, before one even starts with purse money and other costs associated with offering horse races to the public. Still, with new alliances forming between casinos, sports betting operators, and the racetracks, Drazin said he wouldn’t rule out “Palio USA” from happening someday.

What else might Drazin have up his sleeve? He told me last year that drone racing (ask a millennial) could make its way to Monmouth Park, and this week he said that’s still in play, before dryly noting that what with the recently finished summer meet and the legalization of sports betting, his plate has been a bit full.

Monmouth Park has experimented with hosting three steeplechase races to kick off a weekend card, and that is likely to happen again. Another experiment has been a “mixed breed” card, which has been tried at the Meadowlands Racetrack: thoroughbreds on the turf by day, standardbreds on the dirt that night. Drazin hopes to revive that concept, especially if a $20M annual purse subsidy bill passes in Trenton by the end of the year.

What else is Drazin looking at? Esports and video games. In short, everything under the sun.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com.

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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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