By Jane Meggitt, Correspondent
This part of Monmouth County is the epicenter of the New Jersey horse racing and breeding industry, with thousands of acres, many permanently preserved, home to standardbred and thoroughbred horses. As a Dec. 20 deadline loomed on the future of Oceanport’s Monmouth Park racetrack, some residents involved in the racing industry commented on the situation.
"First off, it was a plus to remove [racetracks] from the state’s hands, because the state cannot run anything efficiently," Pete Blaso, a standardbred owner from Upper Freehold, said. "Thoroughbred people are like unions, unwilling to make concessions."
The fate of the 2012 racing season at Monmouth Park was in doubt this week after an investor dropped out of an agreement to take over operation of the Oceanport racetrack. Businessman Morris Bailey walked away from an agreement with the N.J. Sports and Exposition Authority to take over operation of the racetrack after stakeholders could not come to an agreement.
A Dec. 20 deadline was put in place for the Legislature to approve the racing schedule for 2012 at Monmouth Park.
Dianne Boyken, Millstone, owns the thoroughbred breeding facility Four Winds Farm, which is in the state farmland preservation program.
According to Boyken, the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (NJTHA) made an agreement last June that the state has backed out on.
"Then they worked with Bailey, who wanted to lease the facility and let the horsemen run the meet," she said. "Governor Christie said no once again."
Boyken added that the horsemen were merely trying to protect a handful of Meadowlands racing days so they didn’t disappear as well.
"I have been in this business for 34 years and watched our racing days go from yearround to the paltry 71 days it was this year," she said. "Not a lot of opportunity to make a living on 71 days of racing."
Boyken called Christie "shortsighted and ill advised." She pointed out that neighboring New York State opened slot machines at their tracks, and the crowds are so large that they are having trouble handling them.
"Governor Christie doesn’t think they would be viable in New Jersey, while millions in tax revenue from New Jersey residents goes across the river," Boyken said. "Instead, he is dumping hundreds of millions into a dying Atlantic City."
When asked about how the uncertainty at Monmouth Park affects the equine and agriculture industries, Boyken said it is already happening.
"Unlike Governor Christie’s portrayal of the horsemen as a ‘bunch of millionaires,’ for the most part, most horsemen are barely scraping by," she said. "Farming is one of the toughest occupations, with long, grueling hours for little return. Most of the holdouts are family farms."
She noted that the paying customers have departed en masse to more lucrative states, namely Pennsylvania and New York, where slot revenue has sent their industry skyrocketing.
"Many of the large breeding and training farms are already selling out. Once that open space is sold and developed, it’s never coming back. What a sad ending for the ‘Garden State,’ " she said.
Blaso called the Monmouth Park situation "amazing." According to Blaso, we live in a day and age of concessions, and the thoroughbred association was unwilling to compromise.
"There was an individual [Bailey] who was willing to put up his personal money to keep the thoroughbreds afloat, as [Jeff] Gural did with harness racing," he said. "There were concessions involved, but they want the whole loaf, wouldn’t settle for a piece."
He said the effect on the industry includes the loss of jobs in many types of farming and service, from hay, straw, grain and breeding, all the way down to the valet parking attendant at the racetracks.
Kim Jessome, of Millstone, who works in the harness racing industry, called the entire situation a "fiasco."
Jessome said the NJTHA wants to race three days at the Meadowlands so they can cash in on future slot and simulcast monies.
"In my opinion, both standardbred and thoroughbred Associations should have been working together right from the start of Christie wanting to privatize the industry, but I don’t think that really happened," she said. "The harness horsemen, and in particular, Tom Luchento, president of the New Jersey Standardbred Owners and Breeders Association, worked above and beyond the call of duty to save our harness racing, and this thing all revolves around money, and that’s all."
If this isn’t resolved, thoroughbreds will lose the crown jewel in New Jersey (Monmouth Park) and may never get it back, Jessome said.
Thoroughbred owners, breeders and trainers will leave New Jersey for more money in other states, as most have done anyway, she said.
"Until our current government changes hands, or the existing politicians get off their bottoms and actually do something other than talking about getting slots in at the Meadowlands, we as horsemen must try to hang on to fight for slots in the future," Jessome said.