By Bill Finley
These are difficult times for Monmouth Park, the jewel of a racetrack on the Jersey Shore. Having to battle against numerous other tracks, all of whom derive revenues from casino wagering, and having to fight for horses when there simply aren't enough to go around, Monmouth's product isn't up to the standards the track tries to set for itself. What can make Monmouth turn a corner? How does it survive? And how do Monmouth and the rest of the Mid-Atlantic tracks work together for the common good? Those were among the questions Bill Finley asked Bob Kulina, a Monmouth fixture since 1972.
TDN: Before you went into upper management you were the racing secretary. It was a very different world then. What are the most significant changes in the sport you've seen since then?
BK: I was racing secretary starting off in 1977 and there was incredible demand for stall space back then. With the exception of a few select horsemen like Mr. (Jimmy) Croll and Mr. (Bernie) Bond, you were expected in our 60-day meet to make four starts per stall. That was a given. The next year when your application came in the stall committee would go back three years and see if you had a history of supporting the meet. That, to me, is one of the single biggest things that has changed. Now you might get four starts a year out of a horse. The starts per horse are so much less, and, in my opinion, the biggest loser in all this is the consumer. Sometimes, this gets pushed to the side, but we sell bets and we sell something to the consumer and either he buys our product or chooses not. The product we sell has changed so drastically in our industry. I understand industries change and old guys like me like to say, 'back in the in good olds days.” I try not to lose sight of that, but the reality is the product we're asking the consumer to buy is not what it was in the past.
What has changed? The biggest thing is there are fewer horses. It's been well documented the horse inventory has declined and, hopefully, it has bottomed out and, hopefully, it will go in other direction. In addition, I do think today's horsemen, with all the knowledge out there about any kind of athlete, human or equine, have more information about what is best for the athlete. A lot of horsemen feel horses need more time to recover between events so they just naturally space their races more.
When I took over the condition book at Monmouth it was a seven-day book. Every race came back in seven days. It was pretty simple. Then, slowly, it went to 10 days, two weeks, three weeks and now you have horses going into the Kentucky Derby off six and eight-week layoffs. The whole training system for the athlete has changed and because of that it has led to changes in what we are able to supply to the consumer. There are unintended consequences. Two decades ago, there were very few beaten conditions at major tracks. If you needed that condition you went to a lesser track. What has happened with trainers spacing their horses's races out is that it makes things difficult on the racing secretary. It's daunting the first time you sit and stare at a blank sheet for condition book and then go to write your condition book. The old adage is, write for what you have or for what the horsemen want. If they want to run a maiden every 21 days you write it Day One and Day 22 and now you have all these blank spaces you need to fill to run races. Management wants 10, 11, 12-race cards. So now you're forcing the racing department into creating events that weren't there years ago. All these beaten conditions for claimers have changed the game. The categories of horses are being subdivided in so many ways and the result is your creating uninteresting events.
TDN: How has racing adjusted to that?
BK: You're putting together these uninteresting, un-bettable races and management's response to that has been, 'Lets give the gambler something that can make up for the short fields and short prices.' We start asking people to pick the second, third, fourth and, in some cases, fifth-place horses or you ask them to pick the winners of three, four, five, six straight races. We're making the customer try to handicap races and play bets that are really hard bets to win and your average customer can't go $80, $90 deep into the pick four where a big player can. That makes it even harder for the small bettor to win. It's just one more unintended consequences of horses not running nearly as often as they used to.
We all know what the consumer wants. The consumer wants big competitive fields where there's value and you can bet against the favorite or you can make a rational decision why the favorite can get beat or why you can bet against them.
TDN: What has been the role of medication in the declining amount of starts made by most horses?
BK: Medication in athletic events have changed every sport. Some for the better because, now, these athletes are getting much better care. Things that might have previously led to the end of a horse's career 20-30 years ago, now you can give them 30 days in the stall, give them X, Y and Z and you get an animal back that is racing fit again. There have been a lot of great things done medically. The downside is the 90-day miracle trainers. We need changes and everyone needs uniformity. But it seems like it's one step forward, two steps backward and every time we think we're making progress we hit a blip. I believe in the game and I believe in the people running the game. Hopefully, we will solve this.
TDN: What about the role of illegal, performance-enhancing drugs in the sport? The customer is incredibly cynical and a lot of people think the races are too often won by the best chemists not the best trainers.
BK: There is definitely an impact when people lose faith in the system. It's no different than what we are seeing in the political arena this year. People have lost faith in our political system, and racing right now is mirroring that. I don't think it's beyond a dream that we can solve it. The most important thing is I just want a level playing field. I want Joe Blow to have the same advantages or disadvantages as the other guy. It's the guy who pushes the envelope and goes to the edge that is the problem, and we need to have real penalties for these people. We need to enforce the rules and if a guy is not good for the game and has a history of problems you need to say goodbye to that guy. You have to enforce the rules and when you have someone go outside the line you have to make them pay. Is it hard to do? Yes. But you can't lose the confidence of your consumer and that's what we are doing.
TDN: Sal Sinatra, the general manager of Laurel and Pimlico, has said that the Mid-Atlantic tracks have to come together to form circuits and reduce racing dates. He says it's insanity for Parx, Delaware, Laurel or Pimlico and Monmouth to all be running at the same time. Your thoughts?
BK: Sal is right. Without a doubt, when everybody talks about the golden age of racing, you're talking about the fifties, sixties, and early seventies. I have a poster in my office that is an advertisement for the opening meet in 1946 and I look at it every day. Opening Day was June 10 and Closing Day was August 6. We ran short meets then, in the golden age, and you moved from track to track. Every racing day, you had energy and, with the exception of places like Saratoga and Del Mar, we don't have that anymore. There are reasons why we've done what we've done. Being a trainer's son, I didn't see my dad for weeks or months at a time and that was hard. It's a hard life being a gypsy. But the consumer didn't care about that because what they got at the racetrack was something special.
I'll take New York out of the equation because they are the leader of the industry and everyone else feeds off of them. But for Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey to race against one another doesn't make any sense. There are not enough horses to do that. When you had the movement of the horses and short meets, you had an exciting, energized product. Now, we don't have that.
We have to get together and come up with a compromise. Whenever you have a compromise it means not everybody is happy because everyone has to give a little. But that's what we have to do. I am 1000% behind finding a spot in the system that works for everybody because we all bring something different to the table. If the consumer benefits from this then the industry will be better off. If the consumer continues to walk away and reject what we are trying to sell, in the long-run, we won't survive.
TDN: Should there be fewer tracks then?
BK: No. I don't think tracks closing anywhere in the country does anything positive for the game. The only way you create fans is with the live racing experience. Even though most of the income comes from simulcasting and ADWs, you only create new fans at the track. At Monmouth this weekend, we're going to have over 60,000 people here for the three days. That's the future. Hopefully, some of the young people who will come here this weekend will one day end up in my walking ring owning a horse 15, 20 years down the road. The major resort type tracks have to create fans for the industry. I'll include Delaware when I say that. It's a beautiful racetrack. That said, we all need to find a racing schedule that works. There has to be something that makes sense for all of us.
TDN: Monmouth is the only track in the Northeast that does not have slots or benefit from casino revenue. As compared to the tracks you compete with, how much harder is your job and that of your racing department because of the lack of casino money?
BK: I tend to try to separate myself from the others tracks. My product is my product. But If I can't pay for the athletes I'm not going to have as good a team as someone else and I can't compete. You see that in any professional sport. When there's no salary cap and some teams have more revenue than others they are usually the more successful teams.
In 2010 when we did the 'elite meet' we had $54 million for purses. This year we're going to be at about $23 million. The elite meet was the most successful thing we ever did here. The math is the math. The guys stabled here support us but if you have the choice between racing at a beautiful old, historical track or racing at some place where the purse for the same race is $10,000 or $15,000 higher what are you going to do? Eventually you go to where the money is. Money drives the wagon.
Not having the same resources as the other tracks makes things difficult. With that said, I expect something to happen positive for us in the future. This year we had some major capital issues that had to be resolved and most of the money we spent on that will be back for purses in 2017. We all know what's going on with the possibility of casino expansion in New Jersey and we're still waiting on sports betting. This year will be a rocky year for us but we should be stronger in the future.
TDN: With all the economic disadvantages you have, no casino, a short meet, cards affected by the horse shortage, it's hard to see how Monmouth stays open. How do you do it? Is it a money-losing operation?
BK: We don't have a safety net. The horsemen's organization gets its fees and Darby manages things. We don't have a safety net so we need to pay as we go. We sell bets, we make revenue from that, parking, admission, concessions and at end of day we have to be self sufficient. It isn't like I can say 'I need $10 million write me a check,' because we have a shortfall. We are making it. I won't tell you it has been easy. It's on me to figure out how to make it work. We had to make some changes and cuts to our purse structure this year. That's difficult for me to do. I built our reputation, we hosted a Breeders' Cup, the Haskell is what it is. I'm a rare breed where I am 1000 percent behind building a good product. Every extra dollar we have is supposed to go into the purse structure to try to improve the product. Right now it's difficult. We're putting everything we have back into racing. It's a challenge, but I have a great team here. Everybody is working in the same direction. We'll be ok, but it sure would be nice to have some of the resources these other places have. The reason why I still do this at my age? Because I love racing.