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Drazin Facing Uncertain Times at Monmouth

21st April, 00:41

New Jersey track slated to open for racing July 3, if all goes well.

For a while, it seemed as if Monmouth Park had finally distanced itself from a frustrating past.

Then 2020 rolled around.

During the bulk of the past decade, the Oceanport, N.J., track saw its fortunes spiral downward as it was thwarted in its bid to add casino-type wagering for supplemental revenue and innovations, such as the Million Dollar Meet in 2010 or the introduction of exchange wagering in 2016, either failed to stick or never caught on with fans.

But in 2018, all of that changed. The legal battle waged by Monmouth and its chairman and CEO Dennis Drazin paid off like a jackpot when the Supreme Court ruled in their favor. In June, that opened the door for sports betting at Monmouth, the rest of New Jersey, and a growing number of states across the nation.

The following year, while its centerpiece Haskell Day card was wrecked by brutal heat, Monmouth received a $10 million in purse subsidies from the state.

Times were good and growth was the new buzzword, but the COVID-19 pandemic has brought all of that to halt.

While Monmouth planned for 56 days of racing in 2020, that number has been reduced to 36 and opening day at the Jersey Shore was gradually pushed back from May 2 to July 3, while the Monmouth-at-Meadowlands meet was trimmed from 19 to 15 days in the fall and the opening of the Monmouth barn area pushed back to June 1.

Whether Monmouth will be able to stick with those dates is unknown at the moment. While the fate of racing for the near future rests with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, Drazin is also aware of the huge responsibility that comes with operating a large enterprise such as a racetrack during a pandemic and he's determined to be as cautious as possible to save lives.

"From the horsemen's viewpoint, I am sure they are disappointed that we could not open on time. The few tracks that are open are doing good business and I wish we were open, but the bottom line is that this is a scary pandemic and it could cause a lot of people to not only get sick, but die, and we have to be serious about it," Drazin said. "We cannot take it lightly or take risks, so we're going to listen to what the governor tells us and protect people. So if you guess wrong, at least if you are taking it more seriously, and that's better for everyone.

"We're trying to do everything we can to have a meet this year. We're hoping to let horses come back in June, but that's a call for our governor. If he does not let horses in, then we have no ability to make a decision that is not in sync with what he wants. He's taken a leadership role, which we appreciate, and we have to follow the rules he imposes."

New Jersey has been a hot spot for the coronavirus with more than 88,500 cases, a figure second only to New York among states, and 4,377 deaths as of April 20.

With all segments of American life facing huge question marks about how to operate in the face of such a serious illness, Drazin knows he cannot speak with any certainty about what he can do during the upcoming weeks and months.

What's known is that once he gets a green light to allow horses on the grounds, about three weeks will be needed to get the track ready for training.

"We just can't open our backside and train without getting the track ready," he said. "You will break down horses."

He also believes daily purses should be higher because of the shortened meet and the state subsidies, and that a ship-in meet, without horses stabled on the grounds, will not work.

"It's not a viable solution unless the state tells us to do that," he said about the possibility of racing with shippers only. "So far they have not."

After that, it's a mostly an ongoing mystery.

Gulfstream Park and Oaklawn Park are currently racing without fans, and Drazin will happily follow suit if Murphy will allow it.

Yet, if conditions improve, he and his staff must also devise ways to safely conduct racing with people inside the facility, be it by creating new seating areas or testing customers when they enter the building.

"How do you safeguard people? That's the big question. Do I try to build confinement areas? Maybe we take clear material that is virus resistant and build a couple of hundred boxes to make people feel safe, but how do they get to the boxes? You have to pass people at some point," said Drazin, who says he has kept full time Monmouth personnel on payroll during the crisis. "There are some areas where you can't help but come within two feet of people, so we need pathways to get to the boxes. What about concerts or how to sit people in our restaurant and keep them apart. You have to figure that out.

"I will roll with whatever guidelines the governor gives us. If someone says the only way I can let someone in is if we take their temperature, then we will. If we need temperatures or testing of people coming in and out of the backside, we'll see if that's feasible. We can keep people distanced in the backyard or grandstand but what about check points when they come in? At the end of the day, the governor will tell us what to do, and you have to roll with the punches. It will be a tough time for every racetrack. These are scary propositions."

Yet even if governments allow racing with fans, there's no telling how people will react to being in areas with large crowds. Drazin said he's already been told by two of the track's longtime fans that they will not be returning this year, even if the doors are open to the public.

"There are two guys with a front row box at Monmouth for as long as I've been alive," he said. "They are dedicated, hard core fans that love Monmouth and wagering on racing and they told me the other day they are not coming back this year. They say they don't feel safe going to an environment where people will be on top of them and coming to see them. That's one of the issues we will face."

While starting the meet later has led to a reshuffling of the stakes schedule, Monmouth's centerpiece stakes, the Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1), remains on course for July 18 as Drazin awaits word on when other major stakes for 3-year-olds, such as the Preakness (G1), Belmont Stakes (G1), and Runhappy Travers (G1), will be contested.

"I've made calls (to other tracks) and can't get an answer (about their races). It's not that people don't want to tell me. They don't know. I reached out to (NYRA senior vice president of racing operations) Martin Panza in New York to figure out if we can work out a schedule that makes sense and they don't know what they are doing with the Belmont or Travers. That was a week or two ago and if they have a better idea of what they are doing, they are not sharing it."

In the fall, Monmouth planned to conduct dirt and turf racing at the Meadowlands Racetrack, but Drazin said they may not be able to convert the main track for Thoroughbred racing on dirt if Jeff Gural, who operates the East Rutherford, N.J., track, wants to extend harness racing there due to lost dates caused by the pandemic.

In the past, Monmouth's meets at the Meadowlands were turf only.

Adding to the financial problems, aside from the lack of racing, action at the sportsbook Monmouth operates with William Hill has slowed to a crawl with a limited number of sporting events and only online wagering.

In 2019, Drazin estimated Monmouth's net from sports betting was $3 million.

"It would have been a big month for us," he said, "with March Madness (the NCAA men's basketball tournament). When you lose something like that it hurts."

Monmouth, as well as Drazin, was also jarred by the federal indictments last month for race doping that have trainers Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis, among others, facing jail terms if convicted. Navarro has been the leading trainer at Monmouth the last seven years, and since 2017 Navarro and Servis, whose licenses have been suspended, have finished 1-2 in the trainers' standings combining for 875 starters, 320 wins and earnings of more than $8.5 million.

"There are a lot of ways things like that impact an industry," he said. "Monmouth saw a jump in its stall applications to 2,000 this year, so it actually seemed to be a positive impact. There were a lot of new faces that wanted to come in. On a national level, there is a renewed push for the Horseracing Integrity Act and I believe people have expressed a willingness to include a number of issues that I thought should have been included from the start, like track safety issues and integrity issues. I think you will see an expanded bill covering the other needs and I believe the industry is working together more when it comes to reacting to a crisis and communicating."

Drazin also saw the indictments as "a wake-up call" and a warning to others looking for ways to cheat.

"I think it was a wake-up call for trainers and veterinarians that they should conduct their business properly and not open themselves to a similar crime. It's upsetting for the industry because it seems like there was much wider-spread use of SGF-1000 than the two trainers who were indicted and it remains to be seen if others used it."

The indictments also hit home with Drazin on a personal note as Servis has been training Drazin's horses since Servis first took out his license in 2001. Drazin's association with Servis dates back to when Servis was a valet at Monmouth as well as when Servis worked for trainer Peter Fortay, who introduced him to a training regimen that stressed stamina over speed.

Drazin said he never had cause to believe Servis was using performance-enhancing drugs on horses and was shocked to learn of the indictment.

"I thought Jason was a very honest man and I never had any reason to suspect he was not as honest as the day is long," said Drazin, a lawyer with his own firm in New Jersey. "Through Peter, Jason learned a theory of long gallops and not the breezes like everyone else. He became my trainer years ago when Peter died, so I'm not one of those people who give their horses to the guy with the best winning percentage. I felt over the years that Jason was honest and I credited his success on the percentages to spotting his horse right. He would put my horses in spots where I was afraid I would lose them all the time. He wanted to put horses where they were competitive as opposed to running them where they were over their head.

"I thought he was honest as could be and I was shocked when the news broke. It's obviously not a good thing. I feel sorry for Jason, and I think there's a lot more to the story that will come out later, but at the end of the day, if you are doing something illegal, you have to pay a penalty."