By John Piassek
Tuesday, June 7, 2016
Monmouth Park and the Great Mid-Atlantic Crunch
We’re a few weeks into the 2016 Monmouth Park season, and it’s been a fine meet as far as quality goes. As usual, spending an afternoon out there is a fun experience, whether you’re spending it by the paddock, in the grandstand, or by the brilliant staff of the “Ask Me How to Bet” tent in the picnic area.
However, business so far has not exactly been booming. At this point in the meet last year (after the racing of 5/31/15, to give people a reference point), there were 105 races run, featuring 951 entries—including those who were later scratched—and total handle of $40,035,284, for an average of $381,288 a race. Those are strong numbers.
So far in 2016, there have been 100 races, but only 850 entries. That’s a decline of half a horse per race. Handle, meanwhile, has dropped to $34,207,573, for a total of $342,076 per race. Those aren’t so strong.
Yet, a lot of those numbers aren’t Monmouth Park’s fault; I would argue that they’re the product of a regional environment that has chosen to oversaturate itself with racing, and in turn is dragging itself down. It’s long past overdue for the tracks to consolidate racing dates, and to create an overall stronger product.
In the 214 miles in between Belmont Park on Long Island and Pimlico in Baltimore, there are three additional racetracks: Monmouth Park, Parx, and Delaware Park. During the summer, all five circuits attempt to race at the same time, and the results seem to speak for themselves. On Memorial Day Saturday, for instance, Pimlico ran ten races that attracted 86 horses. Not bad. The next Saturday, however, they attracted 77 horses for nine races. The day after that, there were just eight races and 71 entries.
Within driving distance of Baltimore lies aforementioned Delaware Park, a scenic, historic venue. Memorial Day Saturday saw them run nine races, with just 70 horses. The next Saturday, there were only eight thoroughbred events, with a grand total of 60 entries.
The message among all these numbers is clear: there simply aren’t enough horses to go around. Only Parx, with its super-sized purses, is not having trouble getting entries. The other three Mid-Atlantic tracks, meanwhile, are putting out a steady diet of small fields, which isn’t necessarily appetizing to bettors. As such, handle shrinks, and the racing product diminishes. Especially in the case of Monmouth, which is the only non-subsidized track in the region, tracks feel the after-effects of a horse shortage fast.
About the only reason people can think of for why there are so many tracks going at once is the fact that it’s always been done this way. As recently as 1997, Atlantic City Race Course ran a full-time meet at the same time as everyone else, causing even more of a pinch on the circuit. Of course, back then, the horse population was a lot larger, so they could afford to do things like that. Now, however, not as many horses are being born, which would naturally seem to necessitate fewer tracks trying to run on top of each other. While these tracks have cut down on the amount of days per week that they run, it’s clear that more has to be done to ensure quality racing on the circuit. To me, the answer is consolidation of dates.
It wouldn’t be super-difficult, nor would it be the blow to racing that many people seem to feel consolidation represents. Delaware Park and Pimlico, for example, are about seventy miles away from each other. Sure, the respective track managements would like to run more dates, but is there really a need for two tracks to be running similar stock when they’re an hour’s drive away? The only reason many can provide is, well, they’ve always done that. Therefore, they should keep doing it. When entries have gotten to low levels, however, that kind of thinking doesn’t work.
I’m far from alone with this kind of thinking. In a recent interview for the Thoroughbred Daily News, Bob Kulina, from Monmouth Park, commented: “For Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey to race against one another doesn’t make sense. There are not enough horses to do that.” Kulina also noted that, back in the glory days of the New Jersey racing circuit, Garden State Park, Monmouth, and Atlantic City, raced for about seven weeks at a time, during an era when they had no revenue sources outside of their meets. Not only did they survive, they thrived. Sal Sinatra, of the Maryland Jockey Club, noted something similar earlier in the year: “It’s really ludicrous. And no one wants to bend. Everyone wants to run in the summertime, and it doesn’t work.”
Sinatra acknowledged that that type of cooperation doesn’t exist in racing, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t dream. Ideally, Parx, Monmouth, Delaware, and the Maryland tracks would combine themselves into two circuits that look like this:
CIRCUIT ONE: PA-NJ AREA
MONMOUTH: MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND-EARLY SEPTEMBER
PARX: PENNSYLVANIA DERBY WEEKEND-DECEMBER
CIRCUIT TWO: DELMARVA
DELAWARE: MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND-EARLY SEPTEMBER (Timonium would briefly overlap in late August and early September)
I know that the powers-that-be in Maryland would rather their circuit become a year-round racing center, but what good is that idea if, in reality, you are only averaging eight or so entries a race? Ceding some dates to Delaware wouldn’t be a bad idea; the two states could form a partnership, with Delaware possibly even serving as an official extension of the Maryland circuit, the same way that Colonial Downs used to have a partnership with Maryland.
The Parx-Monmouth combination has next to no chance of happening, because of Pennsylvania’s general insistence on having its tracks offering live racing all the time, but when Parx runs all the time, its racing tends to get stale. A summer break, with a re-opening coinciding with the eyes of the racing world are on the track, wouldn’t hurt.
Something has to give. The era of all these tracks running over each other, and the era of 80 horses entering weekend cards, has to end. Mid-Atlantic racing has become needlessly watered-down, and it’s time to bring some punch back to it. Consolidation will help the cause.
John Piassek is a student at Loyola University in Maryland. He prides himself as a supporter of racing in New Jersey and Maryland. John is an aspiring race track announcer, marketer and writer. His “Mid-Atlantic Musings” column on DanonymousRacing.com focuses mostly on NJ and MD racing, ways to market them, how the states can improve their racing, and how racing should start focusing on bettor-centric marketing.
You can follow John on Twitter @Theyreoff.