Ay Cee - By Richard Witt

(Originally published in the July 24, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)  

With a purse structure on steroids and a condensed racing schedule, Monmouth Park has drawn its share of the racing nation’s attention, but it’s not the only Garden State racing center that hosted surging business this year.

Atlantic City Race Course featured another abbreviated turf meet in April, drawing increased crowds to the Greenwood Racing-operated plant, while most of Philadelphia Park’s dirt performers got brief vacations. The result was a mini-turf festival that extended into weekend dates for the first time in Ay Cee’s present renaissance, created full fields, and clearly signalled that South Jersey is hungry for more.

Dating back to 1946, Atlantic City has offered nothing but grass racing during recent springs—poetically appropriate because, when calmly evaluated, the turf courses of Atlantic City and Arlington Park are widely regarded as two of the finest grass layouts in the United States.

Primarily because of the grass course and the oval’s ambience in the latter stages of its utility during summer meetings featuring evening racing, the plant has always been a favorite of mine, though the current signs of wear—especially the paddock infrastructure, the upper stands, and the dark, silent dining room—lend a haunting air on simulcast days.

I attended this year’s final Atlantic City card April 24. The guesstimated total (given no paid gate/turnstiles) gate was 8,506, topping the opening-day (April 18) evaluation of 7,233, both figures demolishing the highest attendance for any Ay Cee race day of the past decade. 

Monmouth Park’s subsequent action has provided its own level of industrial light and sound. In response to Monmouth’s willingness to boost the purse to $400,000, advance the event to July 24, and extend the distance to 1 1/8 miles, owner Jess Jackson announced his intention to enter 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra in the Lady’s Secret Stakes, a better fit for their race-every-five-weeks game plan than Saratoga’s grade I Ruffian Stakes one week later. Two days later a card highlighted by the grade I United Nations Stakes (itself an Atlantic City transplant) drew 13,783, aided by an umbrella giveaway, with the 12-race card’s proceedings attracting close to $9.8 million in action from all sources.

Meanwhile, Atlantic City president Maureen Gallagher-Bugdon would be pleased to generate more news on her own turf. Noting that management had dedicated its full purse accounts on this year’s six-day meeting, Gallagher-Bugdon asserted that to race the desired 10-15 spring dates and a similar autumn meeting (to be run before and after Monmouth’s summer sessions), would require additional funding.  

Subsequently interviewed, state racing commission deputy director Michael Vukcevich took things further, noting that if Atlantic City applied for more dates, he would expect they’d be granted—but as for dedicated purse monies, Atlantic City’s operators would need to generate additional purse funds from the track’s own resources—or stage any extended meeting with a proportionately lower purse structure than levels recently offered.

Note that Atlantic City casino-generated subsidies to New Jersey racing centers have not extended to Atlantic City Race Course, and the legislation that enabled such funding expires after 2011, a reality that inspired Monmouth to unveil this year’s game plan. 

But no matter what’s in store, this year’s Atlantic City finale had its moments. As the second race on the card unspooled and the favored rail horse, Dirt Diver, sought to lead throughout, a fresh-faced, sizeable female contingent seated just behind our little group in the boxes on the second level commenced a rhythmic “Go, No. 1” chant that carried clearly throughout the frontstretch public area. Facing minimal competition from the prevailing public address system, it was a charming, sustained display of the kind rarely encountered ontrack at any venue, and it resulted in a happy ending for that rooting section when Dirt Diver prevailed by a diminishing neck.

Atlantic City prexy Gallagher-Bugdon listened closely during our chat when the need for greater public address power—and, perhaps, a display board of the leading-runner numbers, visible from the front apron—were mentioned. Those perks would be nice—as would a meaningful, sustained presence of the Thoroughbred sport in South Jersey. 

Richard Witt is the former national ad director for Daily Racing Form and currently editor of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association's newsletter.

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