By Ben Massam
Everyone who grew up on horse racing in New Jersey can name the thing they love most about Monmouth Park–a reason why Monmouth Park matters: a fleeting memory, perhaps, a formative experience, a family tradition. For me, it’s the paddock. Year after year, I love standing in the ample shade of the enclosure’s stately beech trees on warm summer Saturdays as horses circle the walking ring before making their way to the track. If I hadn’t taken a trip to the track with my family at the age of 10 and lingered beneath those trees–admiring the magnificent equine athletes, observing the care and community of connections and track employees, feeling an immediate connection to the stories playing out before me–I likely would not be sitting behind a desk at the TDN 18 years later with a career in the industry. Needless to say, not everyone who loves Monmouth Park ends up with a job in horse racing, but I safely speak for friends, family, and acquaintances in saying that there are many who care deeply about the future of the track and, by association, about racing in the Garden State.
Unfortunately, New Jersey’s Thoroughbred industry has fallen on tough times as a result of neglect (at times benign, at times downright deleterious) by state government and through heightened competition from surrounding states that grant alternative gaming subsidies to their racetracks. With little support at the state legislative or executive level, Monmouth opens its doors for the 72nd season of its modern era Saturday facing an uncertain future. While ingenuity and resiliency demonstrated by management and horsemen alike in recent years has shown that the track won’t go down without fighting the good fight, the sense remains that long-term sustenance will require a vastly different political climate in New Jersey, one that appreciates the Thoroughbred industry’s unique position in the state’s culture and economy.
Such was the message delivered at Tuesday’s opening week press conference and luncheon at Monmouth Park, where speakers Dennis Drazin, advisor to the operators of the racetrack, and former New Jersey Governor Richard Codey both expressed optimism as the state moves closer to its next gubernatorial election in November. Drazin added that he believes the track’s push for legalized sports betting will prove successful in the near future, painting a brighter outlook for the Oceanport oval.
While the statewide political landscape and far-flung sports betting issues are of crucial importance to Monmouth Park, the track is shaking things up on-site, introducing an in-house dining structure serving Jersey Shore favorites like Max’s Hot Dogs and Lighthouse Italian Ice, shifting away from traditional menu items, and slashing beer prices. Improving the on-track patron experience can only be a good thing, coming on the heels of a 2016 season which saw significant declines in both on-site handle and attendance. With the word “autonomy” recurrently uttered at the press conference, these changes and enhancements represent incremental steps toward the racetrack controlling its own fate going forward.
As modest progress is made at the local level, why should Monmouth Park matter to an outsider–to someone in the racing industry with no geographical association and no sentimental tie to the Jersey Shore oval… to someone on the other side of the country who has never dined on a Max’s famous hot dog? For me, the answer is simple: because Monmouth is a racetrack in the truest sense of the word. More specifically, a family-oriented racetrack. In an era when in-house casinos and sterile, windowless simulcast rooms increasingly overwhelm racing venues, Monmouth falls into a special class–along with the Saratogas, Keenelands, Del Mars and Santa Anitas of the world–of facilities offering authentic racetrack experiences that cultivate future generations of racing fans. On any given summer race day, Monmouth’s iconic picnic area most resembles an amalgamated beach party, family reunion, and trackside barbecue, crowded with neighbors, coworkers, old friends, new friends, and friends-of-friends…a timeless place where traditions are affirmed and memories are made, with racing ever-present…an experience that resonates with veteran fans of the game and with newcomers alike.
I’m well aware of the criticisms Monmouth Park has faced. As a serious, seasoned horseplayer, it pains me to see low-level races and short fields with seemingly unbeatable favorites saddled by high-percentage trainers. Everyone knows that this combination of factors is no recipe for success for a racetrack that survives by selling bets. But I also believe there is much to be said for the aesthetics, the traditions and the culture of the game; Monmouth Park’s management has forged onward with the admirable goal of maintaining the track’s charm and character until a much-needed financial boost for the racing product arrives.
And so I flash back to my 10-year-old self, taking in the rhythm of the paddock, listening to the banter among trainers, jockeys, grooms and valets, standing in awe as a full field of Thoroughbreds pass through beech-tree shade to the track beyond. Perhaps–with persistent creativity, a more favorable political outlook, and a little old-fashioned luck–Monmouth Park can re-gain stability as a summer stalwart and captivate us for generations to come. It’s just one race track, of course, and one kid becoming hooked on the races can’t save Monmouth Park. But if enough families pass through those gates on a fine weekend day–if they grab a few famous hot dogs, savor a couple of Italian ices, watch those remarkable animals, and learn to love this remarkable sport, a lasting impression will be made… and we will continue to believe that Monmouth Park matters.