Opening weekend at Monmouth Park hardly proved ideal, as soggy weather impacted both attendance (free to enter this year) and horse betting handle.
But a realistic look at the numbers shows that the Oceanport thoroughbred track did respectable business even amid a disgruntled jockey colony upset about the state racing commission’s new restrictions on the use of riding crops.
A shift of 13 scheduled turf races to the main track was just part of the adjustment that track officials had to make.
But the amount wagered per race was $251,311 over the four-day weekend schedule. That is within shouting distance, at least, of the 2019, 2018, and 2017 opening-four-days-averages of $275,867, $287,479, and $274,117, respectively.
(Last year’s figure of $408,677 is not a relevant comparison because racing didn’t begin until July 4 weekend, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic had sidelined major team sports and gamblers scrambled to find action.)
Weather issues alone arguably account for the shortfall.
Jockeys on the brink
The feared jockey boycott did not transpire in a major way, and there are positive signs ahead.
Paco Lopez, the seven-time Monmouth Park riding champ, is expected to debut during Saturday’s races, while 2018 winner Jose Ferrer grabbed a slim lead over several other veteran jockeys with five winning mounts over the long weekend.
Still, leading riders Joe Bravo, Antonio Gallardo, and Jorge Vargas have not committed to ride.
Bravo is the leading opponent of the riding crop restrictions rule, which the state racing commission passed last fall.
In late May, Bravo retweeted this post:
Imagine having a job where an ambulance has to follow you around all day and then some asshole bean counters with no clue are going to implement rules (without your input) that makes it even more dangerous for you. Welcome to NJ horse racing. @GovMurphy @NewJerseyOAG
— Papa Beez (@PapaBeez) May 23, 2021
And this one as well, from a three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey:
After talking to a few owners yesterday I don’t see how Monmouth Park is going to have a successful meet. Owners are realizing how dangerous this rule is for their horses and jockeys.
— John Velazquez (@ljlmvel) May 20, 2021
Perception — and reality
The commission noted last fall that much of its decision arose from public sentiment:
“The prohibition of the use of riding crops, except when necessary for the safety of the horse or rider, will be perceived in a positive light by the general public. The proposed repeal and new rules are of the utmost importance in adapting the industry to avoid the currently negative public perception of whipping a horse.
“The public is essential to horse racing and the industry must learn to adapt if it is to survive.”
Renowned New Jersey horse racing writer Mike Farrell put it this way:
“Racing has only itself to blame for prompting the regulators to step in. Whips have been modified in recent years to essentially do no harm. The old heavy-leather crops that left welts have been replaced with softer plastic models that are more noisemakers than punishers.
“This is more about optics than whips. There have been too many high-profile breakdowns at major racetracks. Too many drug suspensions of top trainers. The game has an image problem.
“Ranked among the sport’s more glaring problems, whipping ranks somewhere in the vicinity of the price of hot dogs at the racetrack.
“There is no evidence that whipping leads to breakdowns and animal cruelty. It’s all about the visuals for a casual observer.”
Farrell added that favorites won 10 of the first 18 races of the Monmouth Park season and finished second in four of the others. “The jocks seemed to be riding a bit cautiously, not crowding in tight. That might be a response to the conditions, or a greater awareness of the need for safety.”
The controversy remains
To be sure, the “war” is not over between the jockeys and state racing officials.
On Wednesday morning, the Jockeys’ Guild posted two messages on Twitter that were quickly retweeted by Bravo:
industry stakeholders. We strongly believe the rule to be very dangerous for both the human & equine athletes. The Guild will continue to be committed to its core mission when the best interests & safety of our members are being ignored or disrespected anywhere in the country.
— Jockeys'Guild (@JockeysGuild) June 2, 2021
The 53-date Monmouth meet continues on Friday with a six-race twilight card beginning at 5 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday cards kicking off at 12:15 p.m.
Saturday’s slate includes a “human race” — yes, people sprint 1/16th of a mile out of the starting gate — but there’s no formal wagering, this is an “amusement purposes only” race.
Photo by Shutterstock