2012-02-16 / Bulletin Board

Beck: Horsemen, state near accord on racetrack

Sen. Jennifer Beck Sen. Jennifer Beck Stakeholders may be inching toward a resolution that would allow the state to finally secure a lessee to take over operation of Monmouth Park.

Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-11th District) said in an interview last week that she expects the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSEA) and New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (NJTHA) to reach a deal that would hand the keys to the Oceanport track over to the horsemen.

“There is a chance, probably a very good chance, that the thoroughbred horsemen will be named the operator for Monmouth Park and will be running the facilities,” she said. “It is dependent on how quickly the attorneys work on both sides.

“Assuming that all happens quickly, it could be announced fairly soon, and it is my expectation that it would happen fairly soon,” she added.

Last April, New York developer Morris Bailey entered into negotiations to take over the park, but after months of talks, Bailey dropped out of the agreement in December, leaving the 2012 racing season in flux.

The NJSEAagreed to continue to operate the park in 2012 by leveraging revenues produced while the authority prepared to re-bid the lease agreement.

However, Beck explained that it was soon discovered that the NJSEA could continue negotiations with the horsemen because the NJTHA was one of the original responders when the operation of the park first went out for bid in 2011.

“The Attorney General, at the horsemen’s urging, went back and revisited the bid documents,” she said. “Their original conclusion was that they probably would have to re-bid it, but the Attorney General confirmed that the bids that were submitted previously could be revisited.”

In December both NJTHA President John Forbes and Gov. Chris Christie publicly criticized each other for the failed Bailey deal.

Shortly after Bailey dropped out, Christie threatened to cancel the 2012 season at the racetrack by Dec. 20 if an agreement with the horsemen could not be reached that did not call for a state subsidy for racing purses. The agreement was not reached until hours before the deadline.

Beck said that both sides realized that they have a lot at stake and needed to come together.

“Sometimes disagreement brings people closer,” she said. “I don’t get a sense that it has been troubling at all in the negotiations.”

Beck explained that there was concern during the original bid that the NJTHA would not have the financial capability to operate the track.

“The second thing that happened was that the thoroughbred horsemen have been able to raise money. Their bid was originally not what we considered, because we didn’t believe they had the financial wherewithal to operate Monmouth Park,” she said. She also explained that the horsemen and the NJSEA came together in December and ironed out some of the particulars that reportedly broke the Bailey deal, including race dates, permitting, and the park’s simulcast signal.

Beck went on to say that because those issues were ironed out, this negotiation would likely go more quickly.

“The issues that had to be figured out previously were negotiated when Morris Bailey was named as the operator,” she said. “My instinct is that there isn’t a lot left to work through — we already figured that stuff out.”

One issue that wasn’t cleared up is the annual Haskell Invitational, which last year handed out a $1 million purse and drew over 38,000 fans to Oceanport, but doesn’t currently have financial support from the state.

“I assume the thoroughbred horsemen would leverage dollars to make sure that the Haskell occurs,” she said. “It is the signature event of the thoroughbred racing industry.

“I can’t imagine they take over as operators and do not have the dollars at hand to go forward with the Haskell,” she added.

According to Beck, the horsemen’s taking over the park is going to be a positive because they have the most ontrack experience.

“I think it is a good thing because who loves Monmouth

Park more than the thoroughbred horsemen?” she said. “I think you would be hard-pressed to find anyone.

“It is their passion, for many folks it is their livelihood, and I think they will go to the facilities with the best interest in their heart for preserving and expanding horse racing in the state,” she added. “In order to make Monmouth Park a successful venture, there has to be all forms of entertainment. Certainly John Forbes has spent enough time at Monmouth Park to know that.”

While the deal is not yet official, Beck is hopeful that it will be done well in advance of the 2012 racing season, which is set to start in May.

Oceanport Councilman Joseph Irace said in an interview that the borough is looking forward to a resolution regarding its largest taxpayer. Monmouth Park contributes about $1.8 million to the borough’s coffers annually.

“I’m happy there are discussions toward a deal with whoever it may be,” he said. “As long as there is a commitment to keeping the racetrack open, that’s what we’re looking for.

“It’s definitely not a bad thing to have the people that are actually involved in profiting from the racetrack being involved in the racetrack.”

Irace said the borough has had a longstanding relationship with the horsemen.

He also said he is hopeful that if the horsemen end up as the operators, that they would put some resources into improving the track.

“The racetrack needs some work, so I would assume that they’d put some money into the track and the field and everything around there,” Irace said. “I hope that there is the ability and the wherewithal to go through with some of the projects.

“We are hoping they are still going to go through with some of the things that Mr. Bailey has talked about in the past and the things that the town has talked about in the past.”

While Beck is confident the parties are close to an agreement, Irace said he wants to see an agreement signed.

“Nothing surprises me around horseracing anymore,” he said. “I am cautiously optimistic that this deal’s done.

“I think at the end of the day the sides dug in, and everybody realized that for both sides, they needed to get together and try to make this work,” he added. “It’s never a done deal in racing until it’s a done deal.”

In 2010 Christie released a report that called for the privatization of both Monmouth Park and the Meadowlands racetracks.

The report issued a year ago by the governor’s Advisory Commission on Gaming, Sports and Entertainment cited an on-track loss of $6.6 million at Monmouth Park in 2010.

The state also reached an agreement with NewYork real estate developer and investor Jeff Gural for the operation of the Meadowlands racetrack, which runs standardbred races.

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