By John Burton
“It’s been quite a challenge,” said Dennis Drazin, the lawyer representing the New Jersey Horsemen’s Association, which will be operating the track.
Drazin of Red Bank took the opportunity at a press conference and celebration prior to this week’s opening day to offer a brief overview of the struggle to ensure that the track, now under private sector ownership, would continue to operate.
“You don’t know how close we came to shutting down Monmouth Park,” Drazin said.
Drazin represents the association, which has control of the track through its management company, Darby Development LLC.
The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which operated the track since 1985, had been in negotiations for some time, looking to hammer out a deal with the horsemen’s association that would allow the track’s continued operation. Gov. Chris Christie has said the state should get out of the racetrack business as tracks continued to see attendance dwindle and revenue decline. There had been widespread speculation that the track would close if no deal were struck.
Among some of the hurdles that had to be jumped was getting support from the various entities needed to operate the track so plans could move forward, Drazin said.
The track has been undergoing some aesthetic renovations in preparations for the season.
“We haven’t been able to do all the renovations we wanted to this year,” Drazin said.
In the future, he said, there will be a miniature golf course and a boardwalk-like attraction. The association plans to reconsider building a water park attraction.
The strategy is to make the racetrack more of a family destination.
“All of this is vital for the future,” Drazin said.
Among the immediate changes for the season will be to catering and food service. “I don’t want to be critical,” Drazin said. “But we needed a change.”
BAM Management, LLC will be responsible for food service this year with executive chef Erik Weatherspool, who gained some notice by winning on The Food Channel show Chopped.
“We’re changing a lot of things,” the chef said.
Weatherspool worked for about a decade at Joe and Maggie’s Bistro, Long Branch, and owned and operated Bistro 44, in Toms River. “The food will speak for itself,” he said.
One of the big questions involves whether other types of gambling will be allowed at racetracks, Drazin said. That won’t likely happen for “five years, at least.”
The reason is the Christie administration is working to revitalize the Atlantic City gaming industry, he said.
“The future may very well include gambling in the northern part of the state,” but for now, “We need to focus on the revenue stream we have,” Drazin said.
“We have to focus on the competitive product we have here at Monmouth Park.”
Joseph Irace, Oceanport Borough Council president, who was on hand for the conference and luncheon said, “I think it’s a big positive,” what is going on at the track.
“I see more excitement than we’ve seen in the last few years,” Irace said.
The track is important for Oceanport, as it contributes about 28 percent of the town’s tax base and is its largest employer. Horse breeding is an important part of the county’s heritage and economy, Irace said.
As for the horses, Mike Sedlacek, a trainer and owner of six thoroughbreds from Florida, said he has been spending the last few years running his horses exclusively at Monmouth Park, and living in Howell for the season.
“I like Monmouth and was a little nervous,” about its prospects, he said. “Where would I go now?”