Hopes for future include alternative gambling
By John Burton
OCEANPORT — Those in charge of Monmouth Park have big plans for the horserace track, hoping to see it become a year-round destination – and hopefully one with Las Vegas-style sports gambling in the not-too-distant future.
“You have to put fans back into the stands. So, you have to figure out ways to invigorate the community” to get that to happen for the track, said Brian Drazin.
Drazin, a Red Bank lawyer, is an advisor to the New Jersey Horsemen’s Association and an advisor to Darby Developers, LLC, which is the firm the association selected to operate Monmouth Park.
Drazin, last Friday, laid out the plans for the park for this coming year and for future years as Darby works to establish family-friendly attractions to ensure the park’s continued viability.
Two years ago Monmouth Park, Oceanport Avenue, opened a miniature golf course as one of its first forays into a future that goes beyond thoroughbred horseracing for the summer months. “It is very successful,” Drazin said.
Other attempts to win over families – such as pony rides and face painting – have not fared as well, Drazin acknowledged.
But people working with the park see other planned future offerings as potential winners for the long haul.
Plans are in the works to develop a concert venue on the park grounds. That venue will be capable of holding up to 7,500 people and Darby Developers are in discussions to partner with AEG, one of the leading entertainment producers in the world, Drazin noted. That project is expected to cost approximately $13 million, he said.
Along with the concert venue, the developers are planning to construct a boardwalk, which would be located in the Oceanport Avenue area and would be adjacent to the existing picnic area and the proposed.
Also in the works are plans to build a restaurant that would be open year-round and located in the area of the miniature golf and concert facility, explained Drazin.
Long-term, maybe as long as four or more years down the road, racetrack representatives envision building a hotel and a water park, he said.
All of the proposed improvements are contingent on winning approval of the state Department of Community Affairs and will be presented to the borough planning board at some point in the future, Drazin added.
For this summer’s racing season, which opens May 10, plans are to increase race purses, totaling $5.8 million for the season, offering some of the largest purses in the country, with the season’s top prize being $1 million for the William Hill Haskell Invitational, scheduled for July 27.
“People follow where the money goes,” Drazin said, explaining the larger purses will attract top-tier horses, trainers and name jockeys. And with that, “The concept is the public likes to wager on a larger field” of horses running in the races, he said. And that will help attract larger crowds to the track, he believed. “Our goal is to get back to that elite meet.
“The plan is to hang on until we can get another source of revenue,” Drazin acknowledged. That other source of revenue, he noted is in the hope that alternative gambling – sports gambling and slot machines along with betting on the horseraces – will eventually be permitted, spurring on additional tourism and attendance.
On the gambling front, however, there are legal and political considerations, Drazin said.
The U.S. Supreme Court is likely to decide this spring whether to hear the case permitting sports betting outside of Nevada. And Drazin said he’s hopeful the high court will take on the matter, hopefully eventually allowing it, which would be another shot in the arm for the racetrack.
The political front involves letting tracks have slots in New Jersey, just as Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York allows. To permit that would mean winning over the governor, Assembly speaker and the Senate president, to allow a bill to move forward and be signed into law. After that, it would take a voter-approved referendum before it could happen, Drazin explained.
At this point, however, Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-3), who represents South Jersey, currently is not on board, fearing for what it might mean for Atlantic City. But Sweeney and Governor Chris Christie have agreed to a five-year timetable, which goes until February 2016 to hammer out an agreement, Drazin said.
“It we get alternative gaming,” Drazin noted, “we’ll have money to do other things.” But, realistically, alternative gambling wouldn’t become a reality until 2017 at the earliest, he acknowledged.
Should it happen, that would be good for Oceanport, the region and the state, he believed. Monmouth Park, which is still owned by the state, pays roughly $1.8 million to the municipality in payment in lieu of taxes, or what is commonly called a PILOT. And if sports betting were permitted, Drazin said studies indicated that about $75 million would be spent on gaming at the park, on top of other spending, and that would translate into revenue for the state and consumer spending for the area.
Oceanport Borough Administrator John O. Bennett had said previously that makes Monmouth Park the largest taxpayer in the borough.
Monmouth Park, in its modern form, dates back to 1946, though the track was first established in the 1870s. The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority had owned and operated the park since 1985, until 2011 when Christie decided to discontinue the state’s direct management of horseracing here and at the Meadowlands, seeing it as a continuing money loser. At that point, the horsemen’s association and Darby entered the picture to offer a new life for the park.
In 2006 the state earned $23-$25 million from Monmouth Park; and to this day the track will attract on average 10,000 spectators a day – making it the best attended thoroughbred racetrack in the country, Drazin.
And given what the future holds, “We’re on the precipice of success,” said a hopeful Drazin.