By Bill Finley
With 10 days to go before opening day at Monmouth Park, preparations are being made to kick off the 53-day meet that begins May 28. Track officials are ready to go and so are the trainers and about 1,100 horses already stabled at the seaside track.
But who will ride the horses?
That question remained up in the air Tuesday. The New Jersey Racing Commission has passed regulations that will go into effect on opening day that will prevent jockeys from using their whips, except for cases when there are safety concerns. Several jockeys, including 13-time leading rider Joe Bravo, have said that because of the whip ban they will not be riding this meet at Monmouth. They are concerned that the new rule will create potentially dangerous situations during the running of races.
“I can't believe it has come this far,” Bravo said. “They're trying to put us in a situation where we will not be safe. I won't be riding.”
Bravo said he was also concerned about the penalties in place for whip infractions. For the first offense, there will be a fine of $500 plus a five-day suspension and the penalties will increase with each subsequent offense.
“That can get very expensive very quickly,” he said.
Paco Lopez, last year's leading rider, had made earlier plans to ride in Florida at Gulfstream Park opening weekend. His agent Cory Moran said Lopez has not decided what do after the first few days of racing, but added that he “plans to stick with his fellow riders.”
Though some jockeys have yet to make their intentions known, it appears fairly certain that a number of regular riders will be missing come opening day. Under existing labor laws, the jockeys are not permitted to stage an organized boycott. However, any jockey can simply decide to spend their summer riding at another track.
Through the Jockeys' Guild, efforts have been made to have the commission reconsider the rule change, but the issue is not scheduled to come up until a commission meeting this summer, after Monmouth has opened. There doesn't appear to be any avenue to have the rules changed before the opening weekend.
Management is convinced there will be no problem finding enough riders to fill out a card.
“We will have plenty of riders,” said a racing official, who estimated at least 15 jockeys will be available on opening day. The list includes Ferrin Peterson, last year's second leading rider. According to the Asbury Park Press, Tomas Mejia is also planning to ride at the meet.
In 1988, jockeys went on strike at Aqueduct over riding fees, but there was no disruption of racing. Some of the lesser riders on the circuit crossed the picket line to ride and so did a number of riders from out of town. Monmouth has, outside of Belmont Park, the best purses in the Northeast, which may prove irresistible to some jockeys struggling to earn a living.
Meanwhile, Monmouth management is caught in the middle.
“I support the jockeys,” said Dennis Drazin, chairman and CEO of Darby Development LLC, which operates Monmouth Park. “I'm most concerned about their safety and welfare and I think we need to do everything possible to make sure that they are safe and to prevent injuries.”
Yet, Drazin understands that the track cannot afford to lose any racing dates and he warned the jockeys that if they stage an organized boycott or accept mounts and then refuse to ride they will face a suspension by the racing commission.
“The safety of the jockeys at our racetrack should always come first, but I have no power to change this,” Drazin said. “I can't pick up the phone and make this go away. It is our regulator that adopted this rule.”
Drazin said his biggest concern is that bettors will shy away from Monmouth because the races might prove to be less predicable because jockeys will no longer be allowed to use their whips as a tool to encourage their mounts.
“The whales I have talked to said, 'look, this is going to hurt your handle.'” Drazin said. “They say they support Monmouth, but they're wondering how do you bet a closer in race where the jockeys can't hit them? It concerns me to some extent that the bettors feel this way.”
At least one big bettor who is a regular Monmouth player said the whip rule will have no impact on his total wagering.
“It doesn't bother me because it's fifty-fifty,” said Anthony Altamonte. “Do some horses need it more than others? Probably. But it will even out in the end. The whip also hinders some horses. Sometimes it's noticeable that when you hit a horse they will run out. Some horses don't like it. To me, this won't make any difference. It won't affect my gambling.”