Thursday, December 22, 2011

Giving new meaning to "Survival at the Shore"

One of Monmouth Park's most popular offerings is the "Survival at the Shore" online handicapping contest, where last year nearly 6,000 contestants entered for a free shot at winning a seat at the National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas in January 2012.

Who'd have thought that Survival at the Shore could be juxtaposed to the new mantra of the beloved Oceanport track heading toward the 2012 season, which fellow blogger Terry Flanagan referred to me (via email) as "Suffolk at the Shore" (a tongue-in-cheek dig at Suffolk Downs) -- and is clearly a far cry from 2010's ballyhooed "Elite Meet".

A literal interpretation of
"Survival" for Monmouth Park
Whereas all parties involved -- horsemen, Governor Chris Christie's office, state legislators -- seemed to be falling over themselves trumpeting Monday night's short-term resolution to Monmouth's tenuous ownership status, Monmouth Park patrons, fans and horseplayers alike no doubt can only question whether Monmouth can compete and survive in a market where, unless one is completely oblivious, New Jersey's thoroughbred racing program is in serious shambles behind the 8 Ball of surrounding states offering far bigger casino-fueled purses.  Look no further than to Aqueduct to our north, where fuller fields and a jockey colony allegedly reconsidering whether to head south (i.e. Gulfstream, Tampa) for the winter threaten to give horseplayers a better-than-normal product in 2012.

Without belaboring the point, I find that all sides have little clue at this point -- the Governor for steadfastly opposing slots at the track (and subsidizing a $250 million Atlantic City casino project that this state needs like a nuclear winter), the legislature for not slashing the racing-date mandate and, from my view, the horsemen for wretchedly failing to market their racing product.  Clearly the reports of $150-$175k daily purse structures are dire, so in my view, the "experts" will need to find a way to squeeze the most out of the on- and off-track handle of Monmouth's races that will comprise the entire kitty.

I have a few broad-stroke ideas (in no particular order), whether any of them read this or are willing to think outside the box (some of these may be inevitable based on the reduced purse structure and union clutches that continue to inflate operating costs):
  • No more than 6 races on weekday cards and 8-9 on weekends. There would be nothing more discouraging than finding a 2012 Saturday card, for example, with 12 races of 4-6 horses, starting at 1230p and ending at 645p.  The cards need to be condensed and harder-hitting.  Less volume and deeper fields (i.e. higher-quality betting opportunities) will draw more eyes regardless of class.
  • Across-the-board reductions in takeout. 
  • Create a "Monmouth Park Racing Series": Apply some of the "play-in" mentality from the handicapping contest circuit and in the harness industry, whereby we find connections entering horses in "racing tournaments" or qualifiers (i.e., held weekly or in assigned races on each card) for some kind of summer meeting championship and a lucrative payday. 
    • I anticipate Monmouth will struggle to keep horses around this summer, so offering the connections a shot at, say, a $250k check for winning their class (i.e. 3-year-old, NJ-bred, sprinters) may increase MP's prospects for filling stables and decent race cards in 2012.
  • Maintain focus on the Haskell: It's hard to consider the logic of canning a Grade 1 stakes and turning down a 30k-40k attendance when that's MP's biggest event. The horsemen can easily end dressing up $5-$10k weekday claimers as $47k allowance events (as if that enhances the allure of race quality to bettors) and focus their budget first on Haskell, then on everything else.
    • Building upon the latter two points (Racing Series and Haskell), maybe using the qualifiers to provide a "free" entry into the Haskell will be a selling point for owners in the 3-year-old division who are considering stabling at another track (i.e. Saratoga) for the summer.  From what little I know about the industry, it is clear that thoroughbred owners and trainers are extremely adept at scheduling their horses to maximize earnings (see Rapid Redux running at the $5k allowance condition in 2011), so maybe Monmouth stables a few more European horses for a summer, with a free shot at the Haskell in mind.  Maybe offer Haskell spots for X number of horses:
      • from outside NJ (i.e., who "out-point" the others in three Monmouth qualifiers leading up to the Haskell)
      • the "champion" or point-leader(s) of the NJ-bred division 
      • foreign-based trainers with x number of horses stabled at Monmouth for the season.
  • Racing May through September, at most: On-track attendance, in my observation, turns grim post-Labor Day, so running beyond late September, let alone October-November, is futile. 
  • Tuesday-Thursday, Saturday and Sunday racing from July 4-Labor Day: In my view, it will be extremely difficult to compete for bettors' dollars with Saratoga on a scaled-down purse structure (and it was even with high purses).
    • One idea is to run on Tuesday's when Saratoga is "dark" and make that the marquee event, with more purse money devoted to that day to draw bigger fields and keep bettors engaged. 
  • Night racing:  No, I'm not suggesting more visits to Knight Sky Racing's blog, I'm recommending Oceanport officials consider letting Monmouth use temporary lighting at the very least for its weekday program.  
    • Think about it.  Outside of senior citizens on bus trips, who rushes to a casino to play at 130 p.m. on a weekday?  There's no one outside of seniors and hard-core players rushing to Monmouth to bet the second on a weekday.  Casino action is more a nighttime mentality, and if racing is going to get a younger audience to embrace and ultimately support its product, Monmouth should consider finding a unique niche (i.e. that rivals Saratoga) and hosting live racing three nights a week in summer.  
    • Unlike Saratoga, where racing is THE draw, Jersey Shore visitors have way too many other options -- namely beaches and boardwalks, Great Adventure -- during the day and uses of their disposable income.  Give people a night-time option that affords them the option of "beating the heat," and maybe tie the racing in with a free concert series and fireworks under the stars, on the order of what is done at Sandy Hook each summer. 
  • Improve family amusements:  The "Family Sunday" idea is a nice idea, but for a bloke like me with kids, it's not worth the effort (for me or them) standing in a 30-minute line for a free bouncy house turn or to get their face painted in 90-degree weather.  
    • MP should consider more amusement-type offerings  (i.e. a ride park, water slides or water park) where people would even be willing to pay.  There is plenty of underutilized parking space in the track-side lots that can be developed to incorporate a "for-profit" water park (maybe by 2013-2014), for one, where parents maybe can even take advantage of paid babysitter services for a few hours of alone time and, at the same time, area teens or others could be put to work as lifeguards, vendors, etc.  I suspect, however, this may be unrealistic in light of the union baggage that accompanies the track and remains an albatross to track profitability, but it's worth a thought.
  • Develop a conference or banquet business during the live meet:  The proposal for weeknight racing may compromise picnic area sales or anger the daytime BYOB crowd, but MP has a vast building that would seem to afford many options to convert space for use for weekday industry conferences, corporate gatherings, etc.  Slot parlors make too much sense, but are a pipe dream at this point.  So it probably wouldn't take much for MP to hire a conference coordinator to try to win away business from other area conference venues whereby it can also promote its racing product.
  • Bring back Simulcast Series Challenge this winter, and offer more handicapping contests: Alright, this one's a bit selfish -- but, hey, it's a handicapping contest blog -- but SSC is an excellent event that, I'd argue, is a low cost to the track and brings in some 200-250 customers who otherwise would not be at MP in the dead of winter and shell out $200 a spot to compete in an NHC-sanctioned event.  MP needs to set its SSC schedule ASAP, and consider hosting other on-track contests that tap into a slowly but steadily-growing handicapping contest circuit, maybe on assigned days (i.e. Friday night), accompanied perhaps by fan education seminars that entice newbies to try a contest. 
  • Legislatively, give bettors an ADW option outside of the state-run 4NJBets.  Anyone who has visited my blog knows my disdain for the state-mandated ADW 4NJBets, which I can only suspect is nowhere near worth the time and taxpayer money spent on the online betting repository.  (I picture a select few legislators' fifth cousins and campaign contributors running the show...I know, maybe that's mean or overly cynical, but too bad.)  By law, any NJ resident looking to bet on racing cannot do so using third-party sites, like TVG, ExpressBet, or DRFBets to make wagers, which I'd argue constrains the free market and may prove discouraging to prospective horseplayers.  ALL of these sites offer customer benefits (i.e. $100 free for signing up, entry to exclusive handicapping tournaments, free past performances and other perks) that jive with the younger-generation mindset and, far as I know, are not offered by 4NJBets.  As a handicapping contest player, alone, I would sign up for any ADW that offers seats to the NHC.  I can't imagine I'm the only NJ resident that would do the same. 
Perhaps too far reaching, but it's about time that other bloggers and fans of the sport share their opinions and for the horsemen and political leadership to heed the advice of the paying customer.

No comments:

Post a Comment