by T.D. Thornton, Bill Finley & Sue Finley
Amid concerns that jockeys would either be protesting Monmouth Park's May 28 opening-day program or not riding at all during the meet because of their concerns over a new state rule that prohibits whipping outside of emergency safety usage, it took until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday for Friday's overnight at Monmouth Park to be released, with six races drawing 45 entrants ridden by 14 jockeys.
Now that Friday's opening day program appears to be a “go,” the looming larger question is what will the jockey colony and field sizes look like in the near future as Monmouth embarks upon a season under a figurative microscope with the New Jersey Racing Commission (NJRC) mandating the most stringent anti-whipping rules on the continent.
Or, put another way, was the light riding colony turnout in the entries just a one-day act of protest, or a sign of a stressful summer to come at the Jersey shore?
“While I understand the jockeys' frustration with the new whip rule and I appreciate the jockeys' concerns that they're putting their lives at risk…the whip rule was created by the New Jersey Racing Commission. It is the law in New Jersey, and there's nothing that Monmouth Park can do about it,” Dennis Drazin, the CEO of the management company that operates the track, told TDN.
“Having said that, I am pleased that we were able to draw the card and get jockeys who were willing to ride to that we can put on the show and not disappoint the public and not create a significant hardship to Monmouth Park by having a financial loss,” Drazin said.
Earlier on Tuesday, Drazin said that he was concerned that certain veteran riders and perhaps even The Jockeys' Guild were pressuring jockeys not to ride. He said there would be “repercussions” if riders or Guild representatives tried to stage a coordinated job action.
Terence Meyocks, the president and chief executive officer of the Jockeys' Guild, told TDN after the overnight came out that the Guild played no role in trying to influence riders on whether or not to accept Monmouth mounts.
“The Guild's position hasn't changed. The rule is dangerous. We've maintained all along that it's not safe for the horses and riders,” Meyocks said. “We have not told one jock [whether to ride at Monmouth or not]. The jocks have made their own opinions whether to ride or not.
“Now, I know a number of riders that felt pressured by the track who decided to ride,” Meyocks continued. “They're willing to risk their lives. Other jocks are just concerned about their safety. We still think it's in the best interest of everybody–the racing commission the track, the horsemen, the owners, the trainers, the jocks, the betting public–to get this rule changed where it's safe and we don't have to worry about litigation.”
The Monmouth colony is expected to get a boost from several riders (Nik Juarez and Ferrin Peterson) who are currently sitting out suspensions, but are expected to accept mounts in New Jersey. Leading rider Paco Lopez will ride at Gulfstream Park on Friday. Then he has to serve an upcoming suspension and accept mounts that have been lined up at Delaware Park and Belmont Park, his agent, Cory Moran, told TDN. A decision on whether to ride at Monmouth will be made after that.
Drazin said he knows Monmouth's top all-time rider, Joe Bravo, is personally committed to sitting out the meet in protest of the strict new whipping regulations, and Drazin said he doesn't expect that decision to change.
But beyond that, Drazin said, “We would expect more jockeys to be willing to ride. I think that jockeys chose the wrong methodology to try and boycott Monmouth Park because of a rule that Monmouth Park did not create. And unfortunately, we had all this controversy, which puts a little bit of a damper on opening day and getting excited for the meet.
“If they're not going to ride [in New Jersey], they probably should choose where they're going to ride and go there instead of trying to get other jockeys not to ride and approaching trainers and asking them not to enter,” Drazin said.
“Look, if a jockey does not want to ride because of the rule and decides to go elsewhere, we can't stop them,” Drazin said. “But jockeys trying to–call it anything you want–set a boycott and engage in conduct that is detrimental to racing could end up having those jockeys get in a lot of trouble, which we certainly did not want to happen.”
Earlier on Tuesday Drazin had explained to TDN how the NJRC could enforce a rule that involves “conduct detrimental to racing,” although it is unclear exactly how or if that regulation pertains to not accepting mounts over a principled boycott.
Also earlier on Tuesday, Drazin had outlined three in-house possibilities that were under consideration for how Monmouth could penalize (or incentivize) riders who were deemed uncooperative or disruptive: 1) A meet-long ban for any rider who boycotted opening day; 2) A civil lawsuit against the Guild and/or individual jockeys to try and recoup lost handle revenue, or 3) Implementing a meet-long jockey-title bonus that would not be available to any riders who chose not to ride on opening day.
But after the overnight came out, Drazin told TDN he was rethinking those options.
“Given that we're able to put the races on and not have to shut Monmouth Park down, I don't probably contemplate there will be a civil lawsuit seeking damages. We'd rather get along with the jocks. And as far as the racing commission taking any action against anybody, that's up to the racing commission. I can't speak for that. But whatever policy [racing secretary] John Heims put in place as to jockeys who refuse to ride will probably stay intact.”
Both Drazin and Meyocks were in agreement on one issue: That New Jersey's controversial whip rule could become a moot point about a year from now when federal oversight mandated by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act is up and running and a uniform, nationwide whipping rule possibly gets put into effect.