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Monmouth Park has many unanswered questions in push to restart racing

20th May, 11:50

The final horse shoe in the Triple Crown puzzle dropped on Tuesday when the Belmont Stakes was penciled in for June 20, some four weeks out from the $1 million TVG.com Haskell Invitational on July 18 at Monmouth Park.

So what does all that mean for the centerpiece of New Jersey racing?

"Frankly, I have bigger issues with the Haskell than how much the Belmont is going to effect it," said Dennis Drazin, chairman and CEO of Darby Development LLC., which operates Monmouth Park.

Because with the COVID-19 pandemic still impacting every aspect of life, so much remains unclear about a Monmouth Park meet that has already had opening day pushed back twice, with the original May 2 date now set for July 3.

No one's certain the stable area will open as planned on June 1 for what will be a migration of nearly 1,5000 horses and hundreds of workers. And if not then, when, and how could it impact the July 3 opening day, with final approvals on everything needing to come from Gov. Phil Murphy's office.

Related: Deconstructed Triple Crown makes path forward tougher for racing

The fact that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is bringing racing back to New York at Belmont Park on June 3 certainly helps Monmouth Park's cause.

"We have asked for June 1, but I don't know," Drazin said. "I thought we were OK, but when the governor extended everything (public health emergency) for 30 days (on May 6), technically that is after June 1. But that does not prohibit the governor from opening things up earlier. So even though he imposed those restrictions, he opened up golf courses, he opened the charter finishing, some tennis and horseback riding."

What has been approved is Monmouth Park's ability to begin preparing the racing surfaces and the backstretch to accept the influx of horses and workers, a process that started on Monday.

But still unresolved are a host of issues that will dramatically impact the meet, which has already been trimmed from 56 racing days down to just 36. For instance, what will the policy be on horses shipping in to Monmouth Park, if they're allowed to at all? And what will that mean for horses who want to come to the Jersey Shore on Haskell Day, when six stakes races and more than $2 million in purse money will be up for grabs?

Most tracks that have reopened are allowing horses to ship in for races, but they must be handed off to a trainer who is already on the grounds, rather than introducing new workers into a track's stable area.

"We have submitted a pretty detailed plan on what we think should be done and it's being vetted now," Drazin said. "If anyone ever said you can't ship in, that would be ominous.

"I know some trainers are concerned about trainer's responsibility, like if the horse tests positive who is responsible? The guy who is taking the horse is not going to want to take the responsibility because he didn't have the horse when perhaps it was treated, and the guy giving the handoff, he doesn't want to be on the hook because he's not taking care of the horse for the last 24 hours. So all that stuff needs to get worked out, and all the proper protocols need to be in place."

It's also unclear whether or not fans be allowed on race days. While there clearly will be no large gatherings permitted for the foreseeable future, there is a hope that there could be social distancing on Haskell Day, with a limited number of patrons allowed into the facility, perhaps at a quarter capacity.

It also remains to be seen what Monmouth Park's purse structure will look like, with limited revenues from simulcasting and sports betting since the pandemic forced the track to close in March.

The only thing that is clear is that, with the racing season beginning to ramp up around the country, Monmouth Park still has a lot of questions, and very few answers.

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