By MaryAnn Spoto/The Star-Ledger
A bitter dispute over a license for additional racing dates at Monmouth Park has shut down talks to privatize the racetrack, jeopardizing its future and the jobs of several thousand employees.
As a result, developer Morris Bailey today indicated through his attorney that he wants out of the deal to lease Monmouth Park.
"Mr. Bailey is very disappointed the transaction could not be closed," said attorney Ronald Riccio. When asked if the Monmouth Park deal is dead, Riccio said, "I never say never," but also said he would be surprised if it could be revived.
The New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association is also considering going to court to force the state to honor the agreement it struck to transfer a racing license to the association.
Michael Schottland, attorney for the horsemen’s association, said the conflict arose last Friday, three days before state officials were set to close deals leasing Monmouth Park to Bailey and the Meadowlands Racetrack to developer Jeffrey Gural as part of Gov. Chris Christie’s plan to privatize the two facilities and end casino subsidies to horse racing.
• Morris Bailey, now in control of Monmouth Park, is the future of New Jersey horse racing
Schottland said the state reneged on its June 21 deal to transfer to the association a license to run thoroughbred races — usually held at Monmouth Park — at the Meadowlands Racetrack. The association wants the license to allow it to increase the number of thoroughbred horse racing dates in New Jersey beyond the 71 meets in Bailey’s agreement, Schottland said.
But if off-track wagering is eventually allowed at the Meadowlands, that license would also give the horsemen’s association a cut of proceeds, something Schottland said Gural unknowingly gave up in the June 21 deal.
"We saw this (off-track wagering) coming and that’s why we made it part of the negotiations," Schottland said. "Because we out-negotiated them, they’re now crying foul."
Gural did not respond to requests for comment today.
Monmouth Park employees are on the state payroll until Dec. 23. Bailey was expected to take over after that but now their future is uncertain, association president John Forbes said. Although the live racing season doesn’t begin until May, Monmouth Park has simulcast races seven days a week, which could be in jeopardy if Christie follows through on his threat to shut the facility, he said.
Schottland and Forbes said state officials assured them this summer the New Jersey Racing Commission was on board with the agreement and that it would sign off on the lease transfer at a Dec. 20 meeting.
They said state officials on Friday told the thoroughbred horsemen there would be no license transfer after all and threatened to close Monmouth Park if they couldn’t reach a new agreement by Monday. Forbes said Christie’s administration cut off negotiations before the organization could bring a proposal to its board, and Christie’s negotiators only said the state Attorney General’s Office "was uncomfortable with it."
"At some point they realized this permit had some value and said ‘we gotta get it away from these guys,’ " Forbes said.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak would not discuss details of the events, but said in an e-mail, "All I can tell you is that Mr. Forbes’ story is not at all an accurate characterization of events."
In another wrinkle, Dennis Drazin, former president of the thoroughbred horsemen’s association, abruptly resigned as chairman of the racing commission last Thursday, the day before the deal fell through. Drazin, who would have been required to recuse himself from voting on the leases, declined to comment.
Christie announced a year ago he wanted the state out of the horse-racing industry and was seeking operators of the two racetracks. Frustrated at the slow pace of sealing the deal, Bailey, who has been running Monmouth Park on a memorandum of understanding since June 24, sent a letter to the state in September declaring the memorandum void.
Staff writer Tom Luicci contributed to this report.
MaryAnn Spoto: firstname.lastname@example.org
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