By Tom Luicci/The Star-Ledger
Five years after it reached the pinnacle of thoroughbred racing by hosting the Breeders’ Cup, Monmouth Park faces the prospect of being shut down next summer if a new lease agreement for the track can’t be reached in the next seven days.
Gov. Chris Christie imposed the deadline today after a lease deal with real estate developer Morris Bailey began unraveling just as it was to be finalized during a Dec. 2 meeting.
The situation also weighs upon the future of the Meadowlands Racetrack, as Christie has said the deals for private takeovers of the two tracks have to be made simultaneously. New York real estate mogul Jeff Gural, who is trying to take over the Meadowlands track, said he is trying to find a way to conclude a separate deal if necessary.
Christie blamed the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association for the collapse of the Monmouth Park deal — originally agreed upon June 21, with Bailey taking over as the track’s operator from the Sports & Exposition Authority — by characterizing the group as "completely untrustworthy."
John Forbes, president of the Horsemen’s Association, countered by blaming the state for abruptly changing the terms of the agreement when it opted not to transfer the license of racing dates at the Meadowlands as originally agreed upon.
"To say that the horsemen are untrustworthy is absurd," said Forbes. "If there’s anyone untrustworthy here, it’s not the thoroughbred horsemen."
Forbes said he saw no way the two sides might reach a new deal, with a new operator, in the next week.
"I don’t see any solution and I think the entire industry is in jeopardy," he said, adding that the dispute may have to be resolved in the courts.
Bailey has removed himself from consideration as the track operator after originally agreeing to post a $5 million letter of credit while also absorbing the bulk of Monmouth Park’s estimated $8 million in losses this year.
"He has no further interest in pursuing a lease with Monmouth Park Racetrack," said Ron Riccio, Bailey’s lawyer throughout the lease process.
Christie stated this year that he wanted the state out of the money-losing racing business, with Gural reaching a deal to conduct harness racing at the Meadowlands Racetrack.
Monmouth Park, which opened in 1946, has never missed a summer of live racing. There is only thoroughbred racing at the track; the Meadowlands runs harness racing, also known as standardbred racing, in which the horses race at a controlled gait while pulling a rider in a two-wheel cart, called a sulky.
"If thoroughbred horsemen want this industry to remain in New Jersey, they need to come to us in the next week with a deal that works," Christie said. "If they don’t come to us in the next week with a deal that works and stop extorting the taxpayers for millions of dollars in subsidies for their industry, then we’re not going to have a deal and we’re not going to have a horse racing industry in this state anymore."
The racetracks and racing-related operations account for about 7,000 jobs and generate $780 million annually, according to a 2007 economic study by the Rutgers Equine Science Center.
Christie said he "was hopeful in the next seven days they’ll come to their senses" and reach an agreement.
No reason was given by either side for the state’s last-minute decision not to transfer the license for thoroughbred dates to the horsemen’s association.
"They had five months to tell us about this. Instead, they tell us the day we’re about to finish the deal," said Forbes.
Christie said the horsemen’s group demanded an additional $5 million in purse subsidies, which is why talks broke off. Forbes said the horsemen were looking for a way to be compensated for not having the license for racing dates at the Meadowlands, which he called "a cornerstone to the deal."
Monmouth Park, which runs live thoroughbred racing from mid-May until Labor Day, employs approximately 1,600 people at the height of the season and pays $1.84 million annually in property taxes to Oceanport.
Statehouse reporter Matt Friedman contributed to this story.
Tom Luicci: email@example.com