Monmouth Park Operator Drazin At Peace With Haskell Decisions

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In his heart of hearts, Monmouth Park track operator Dennis Drazin would have preferred to have run the entire 14-race Haskell Invitational Day card on Saturday in spite of the heat and humidity.

Drazin, a horseman all his life, also told NJ Online Gambling Thursday, “We’ve raced in hotter weather — this is not a new thing.” He added that the winning jockeys of each of the first two races, before a four-plus-hour delay and cancellation of six races, informed track officials that there was no need for concern about continuing the race card.

“Most horsemen think there was no reason for us not to have run the races,” Drazin said.

With all that, then, does Drazin regret the delay, the cancellations, and bumping the $1 mm Haskell Invitational feature race out of its 5-6 p.m. NBC national TV window?

Considering the overall picture, Drazin said, “Looking backwards now, I think I made the right decisions.”

The death of at least 30 horses at Santa Anita Park in California in the past year has cast a stark spotlight on the sport, with some beyond just People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) members questioning whether the sport should be abolished.

Governor concerns

Gov. Phil Murphy and his aides checked in with track officials that morning, pointing out the potential downside. Both Drazin and Murphy stressed this week that the ultimate call was made by Drazin and his veterinary experts, with Drazin saying he “erred on the side of caution.”

“It was not a good financial decision, in terms of less than $9 million in handle when we could have been looking at $20 million,” Drazin said. “But in this day and age, we have to be conscious of circumstances beyond our control and we have to play it safe.”

Drazin pointed out that any death of a racehorse that day or soon thereafter — regardless of whether it was heat-related — could have been what Drazin called “a national PR problem.”

The fact that Saratoga canceled its Saturday card as it nears the height of his racing season and that tracks in Delaware and Maryland also went dark complicated things further. Drazin said the extensive buzz on social media was difficult if not impossible to ignore. (It may be worth noting that Monmouth Park canceled its card on steamy Sunday, while Saratoga did not.)

A $10 mm annual subsidy for thoroughbred racing in the state began this year with bipartisan backing in the Legislature and then with a bill signed by Murphy. For the next four years, horse racing operators in the state — the standardbred horsemen also are divvying up $10 mm — must demonstrate to the Legislature that the funding is well-spent.

If the worst had come to pass, it could have been a disaster for the entire state equine industry.

Haskell handle up off late starting time

Meanwhile, the Haskell Invitational handle was nearly $4 mm — up from $3.3 mm last year. The presence of controversial Kentucky Derby disqualifiee Maximum Security — who won the Haskell — didn’t hurt, but the last-minute switch to run six stakes races in succession from 6 p.m. through the 8:11 p.m. post time for the big race provided food for thought.

“I got feedback from people who heard about the delay in time, so they didn’t arrive at the track until later,” Drazin said. “They said having an early-evening card like that when the weather was a little better was really enjoyable.”

Drazin has been mulling the fact that there seem to be more and more extreme weather events in recent years, so he once again is trying to think “outside the box.”

(Remember, this is a man who has kicked the tires on drone racing at Monmouth Park as a potential way to lure millennials to the track.)

So what could be the next innovation for the venerable Oceanport racetrack whose current iteration opened in 1946?

“I need to get a quote on lights, to figure out how much that might cost,” Drazin said.

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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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