Bob Kulina Podcast - Listen Now!

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Transcript

Ron:  This is Ron Mitchell of BloodHorse.com's Talkin' Horses podcast.  Today our guest is Bob Kulina.  As many people know, you could see his biographical sketch on our website.  He is the Vice President of Thoroughbred Racing for the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority and the General Manager of Monmouth Park. 

This year Monmouth Park has undertaken a bold experiment in which they are slashing the race dates but are offering up to $1,000,000 per day in average purses for the 50-day meet.  The results have been an overwhelming success and a lot of that success is attributed to Mr. Kulina and his management. 

Bob, welcome to Talkin' Horses.

Bob:  It's an honor to be a part of your show.

 

Ron:  First question is really what took so long to get to a point of thinking so far outside the box that you have gone this route?

Bob:  Well, we haven't been happy with the direction of our race product and we're a firm believer that the most important thing is to produce a product that the consumer has interest in and is going to be willing to invest their money in.  I've been with Monmouth my whole career and I have a great relationship with the horsemen.  I guess it's hard to get any horsemen's organization to do something like what we did, reduce the dates over 50%.  It's just amazing in that sense, so we worked very hard and this wouldn't be able to happen without Dennis Drazin who, along with myself, spent over two and a half years trying to convince everybody, both sides of the fence, management as well as horsemen, that this was the direction that we needed to try and to see if we can change the perception of New Jersey and racing around them.  So far it's really done better than we thought it would have done.

 

Ron:  Really, you're trying to focus more on quality, both with the purses that you're offering and the quality of fields that you're attracting over quantity.  A lot of times, obviously everyday that you're open it means money for the racetrack and money for horsemen, so there had to be quite a good sales job going on there.

Bob:  Yeah, it was a big sale.  I'm a firm believer  a good race needs field size and needs a competitive field.  I mean there are such things as a competitive $5,000 claiming races but what we were seeing was our claiming races were just non-competitive.  We had a lot of 6-5 shots in these races and nobody wants to bet on six, seven horse fields with 6-5 shots, 3-5 shots.

Our better races, we still had a core of great horsemen stable with us, so our better races and our Saturday cards tended to be okay the past couple of years but it's been the weekday cards that were just so weak. I was taught a long time ago that you're supposed to create your stars and the consumers who you're creating the stars for. and so we went out there and decided to put all our eggs in one basket, so to speak, and offer a lot of money and try to get big competitive fields.  So far, it's kind of done what we were hoping it would do.

 

Ron:  It really has just created an overall good, positive buzz for both Monmouth and New Jersey racing.

Bob:  Definitely, I mean our transmissions have doubled and that is just hard for us to believe and it isn't like we weren't three years away from hosting The Breeders' Cup.  We have the Haskell, so we have good racing but to double your transmission just means the rest of the country is really paying attention.  That's through half of the meet; we're halfway through... we're 24 days through I guess through the weekend and our transmissions are up over a hundred percent, our  live handle is up close to 25%, and so everything right now seems to be working quite well.

 

Ron:  We'll go straight to the questions we got from our readers, the first one is from Bob Z - I live about 20 minutes from the track and in talking to people I can definitely tell there's more of a buzz about Monmouth than in the past years.  Great job and thanks for getting Rachel again.  My question is do you foresee in the future being able to offer another signature marquee type of race like the Haskell later in the meet for older horses?

Bob:  That's a good question.  I mean the problem with marquee races - not the problem - is y ou need to find a slot that a marquee race fits.  The new schedule of Saratoga with the Whitney and the Woodward it late August, it doesn't really leave a spot for one of those races.  You have them on the Turf Division, our other grade I, the United Nations, the spot for the UN that works is more 4th of July because in August you have the Sword Dancer and Arlington Million. 

So right now, there isn't a division that truly fits at the end of the meet.  I wish there were because he is a thousand percent right; we would love to have another post Haskell event.  So we're trying to focus on building August with more marketing events.  We have a crabcake festival, were running post Labor Day.  We're going with a hunt meet ; we're going to do a Jersey state-bred day  in early September.  So we're trying to strengthen our racing but it's hard to find a race that fits.

 

Ron:  That subject of scheduling races brings us to the next question from Shawn - This year the United Nations and Man of War were offered on the same weekend.  Year after year, it appears there's no coordination with fellow Mid-Atlantic jurisdictions and New York on stakes calendars.  Why not?

Bob: Well we did attempt to do that and I think it's a question that NYRA needs to answer.  The United Nations was all by itself on the 4th of July and it was a month after the Manhattan and a month before the Saratoga races.  Two or three years ago, New York felt they needed to move their race.  We had discussions with them last October, obviously nothing came of it.  I do agree that we need better coordination of our events.  Sometimes it takes two to tango and right now, we couldn't accomplish that and I agree, it's not the best thing for racing.

 

Ron:  Okay but it's certainly something that you work on.

Bob:  Right.

 

Ron:  Next question is from William Harkins -  Mr. Kulina, how have the employees reacted to the new schedule?  I'm sure many employees are now working three days a week instead of five.  Also, what about the businesses in the Oceanport area, have they been impacted because of less traffic coming in?

Bob:  Good question.  That was one of our fears going in of how would it affect a lot of our per diem employees, and it's really the opposite effect.  There's more energy among our employees.  Everybody's generally excited.  Attendance is up over 20% and people see now that there's a future for something.  For years, there was a lot of negatives surrounding racing and right now something positive is happening and right now... that is probably of all the things with the meet, the positive energy of the horsemen, in our employees and the fans; that, I think, is the thing that's the most rewarding so far after half the meet is over.

 

Ron:  Okay, so it's just got an overall good feel about it.

Bob:  Definitely, there's a lot of positive energy, a lot of excitement.  People are excited about Rachel Alexandra coming.  They're excited about...  you know the potential right now is there for a great Haskell.  So right now it's been very positive.

 

Ron:  Okay.  Ginny wants to know - If the casino industry decides not to renew its purse subsidy for New Jersey racing, what funding options will Monmouth Park have and what would purse levels be in 2011 without it?

Bob:  Right now our intention is to go after funding.  The Governor's Commission on on Racing is coming out with a report around the 1st of August.  Everybody's really pleased in the entire State of New Jersey with the results of this meet.  So now it's going to be the job of the sports authority and the horsemen to go figure out how we can do this again but we have every intention to going out and doing this again in 2011.

 

Ron:  Whirl Away Joe (probably not his real name} he wants to know - Do you feel this will be the future of our sport, fewer race dates, more weekend racing, larger prizes for claiming races and allowance races, particularly considering the diminishing number of horses available?

Bob:  Yeah, well I definitely feel this is the only way we can put the product out there as an industry right now.  I mean the customers want big races, they want competitive races, big fields and like every other sport you have to have the money to pay the athletes, and I do think this a direction in my crystal ball, especially in the Mid-Atlantic region. I think everybody needs to find a slot what's the best for them.  It would be nice if somebody in the future would fill the slot of quality racing on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.  (Simulcast) Transmissions is such a major part of our business nowadays so I'm hoping that down the road, you will see people, almost like I said before, it's almost like the 50's where you had these short meets and people moved around and I think that's where the direction we're headed.

 

Ron:  Fred Danielson asked - Is your handle covering the purses being paid out during this meet?

Bob:  The handle doesn't - obviously this year we have a casino supplement and that's a large part of our purse structure.  So the answer is no, but the interesting statistic is that revenues and gross handles and for purses is up in 2010 with 12 racing days over 20 racing days in 2009.  The business model, the current model, seems to be more profitable for both purses and for management.

 

Ron:  Okay, that brings us on to the next question from Don - How close are you to breaking even with Monmouth during this meet?

Bob:  Breaking even is - the Sports Authority is very complicated.  We have two racetracks.  We have the OTWs so we have to look at our business model in an entirety and this new model will bring the sports very close to the breaking even between the racing division and what's it's probably going to setup is something  similar for 2011 to happen within our standardbred division.  There's a lot of stuff that we're going to analyze and we're going to be quite busy in September trying to figure out what is the proper model.  I mean there are definitely things - we will definitely tweak this model as we move forward.

 

Ron:  A different topic, Bob Hut writes - I would like to congratulate you on the tremendous Monmouth Park meet.  I would also like to ask if you have any plans to honor our late great friend, trainer Alan Seewald.  It would be wonderful if there were stakes race named in his honor or if he could be immortalized in the Monmouth Park Hall of Fame.

Bob:  That is something we'll take into consideration.  Alan's a dear friend.  His family's a dear friend and like anybody who's been with you a long time, all that's taken into consideration and the problem with all of that is we have a lot of people who have left us that are really good, and so it's an issue that is under consideration and we'll spend the winter and talk about it.

 

Ron:  Rick wants to know - What has been the reaction to the new racing schedule in Monmouth Park to the trainers, owners and breeders of New Jersey breds who now have fewer races to run their horses in?

Bob:  Once again, it was extremely positive.  I mean everybody had a lot of fear, a lot of reservations rightfully so because that was such a bold initiative but the breeders appear to really be happy with this.  You have the state breds running for maiden special run for $75,000.  We're still offering over two and a half state bred races a day, or we will by the end of the season and right now, the breeders for the first time see a future, as well as the horsemen.  I think one of the things that has surprised a lot of people, not so much myself, but our local Monmouth guys are doing quite well and there are a lot of guys that didn't think they'd be able to win the races and they're winning races.  I have guys coming up to me and tell me, "Jeez, I finished 2nd in a maiden special and I made $18,000 for finishing 2nd..." or whatever it is... it's been very positive.  I think everybody; guys who I know voted against it have come up to me and said, "I'm glad you were persistent with this because it's the right thing to do."

Right now I think most everybody is very happy with what we're doing.

 

Ron:  It isn't like big time stables from outside just coming in and raiding the purses. 

Bob:  No, it isn't like that because if you look at our leading trainers the last decade, you have Todd Pletcher on the board.  You have Bruce Levine.  You have Kelly Breen who trains a high-end outfit.  We've had high end people with us for a long time.  Kiaran McLaughlin has been here.  Mark Hennig has been here.  We've had big outfits here and this isn't something new to Monmouth.  We've had good outfits and the local guys are doing quite well.  I mean our local jockeys are doing well.   Joe Bravo is still the leading rider.  We had some great riders come in, but Joe somehow... a lot of people have just seemed like they stepped up their game.

 

Ron:  Okay, that's great. 

Bob:  Really when we do this next year, I believe the racing will be much stronger because guys will have more time to better prepare the horses they have for the meet.  I think there's a lot of growth in the racing end of this, the product end of it.

 

Ron:  Joe asked - How do you think Monmouth will fare in the coming weeks as Saratoga opens its meet?

Bob:  Saratoga always opens at that time, so I think the numbers; hopefully they stay in step with it.  That is something we're obviously looking at.  How will our signals hold up against Saratoga, against Delmar?  That's the unknown, but I think the racing product will be strong.  Philly Park is shutting down in August, so whenever they run a week races 50, 40 some races a week less demand on the horse inventory.  I just think our racing is going to be strong and hopefully it continues.  I know Saratoga is the premier track in America but the flipside is our signal goes into Saratoga and they're going to have their 20-30,000 people or whatever they have on a given day so hopefully, some of those patrons take a look at Monmouth.

 

Ron:  Barry wants to know - With horsemen getting a million dollars a day in purses, how about giving more money back to the fans in the form of lower program costs, lower costs for food and drink and also what about some instant winning cash vouchers?

Bob:  We do have a marketing department.  We do have direct mail with winner's vouchers in there and I think we do it twice a year.  We have as far as free admission; our pay gate is right about 30%, so we put out a lot of passes.  We give away free passes every month for the next month.  If somebody's worried about taking advantage of admission, we were there.  The flipside is the patrons are getting a much better product.  We've expanded our marketing schedule a lot this year and we want to actually to continue to expand it. 

Our long term goal is to have an event every weekend.  We added three events in June, and I think that added to the strength in June, something that we hadn't had in the past.  We added a wine festival and a music event, another food event.  So we're trying to have every weekend events and we're already talking about what we want to do for next year on some of the weekends where there is a void.

 

Ron:  That brings us to the next question from Paul Gaspari who wants to know whether or not any of those things you're trying, if more of them could be aimed at the younger crowd,  particularly like mid-30's like he and his friends.

Bob:  Well we're trying to do that.  If you come to Monmouth on weekends it is a much younger crowd.  We're trying twilight racing, we're trying that and this Friday will be the second of three.  We'll sit back and analyze that. 

That's part of the thing we're trying to figure out how to do; do you bring young people in there with marketing events or do you bring young or new people in here with good racing?  Our thought process is you need an entertainment event every weekend with music, with specials and try to sell it.  Anybody who has been to our picnic area knows it's a great way to spend the day at the races and hopefully, we can walk the people through our building and get them into the clubhouse and where they actually are getting very interested in handicapping. 

I think that's a challenge for racing, we're trying but we're pretty happy with the direction we're going when we see the young people on Saturdays and Sundays because it is a younger crowd than the norm.

 

Ron:  Another question, pretty much off the topic of current maintenance scheduling, that type of thing is from George Schwartz who wants to know why you don't use a 5½ furlong turf course more other than for stakes?  Also, do you see a use for the turf at the Big M in the future?

Bob:  Okay, the 5½ is out of the chute and when we have the rail out 24, 30 feet, it's a little tight turn so we don't use it that way. We don't go out of the chute that way but having one turf course, if I have the magic wand I would love to have two turf courses like New York does.  There are so many divisions that you need to run on the turf.  You know Mike tries not to overuse the 5½ and personally, I think a 5½ is a tough race to bet on because horses can get eliminated so quick, so we tend to prefer to use our  mile races more but with that said, we still try to keep the 5½ to the higher level horse.

 

Ron:  Jeff Strong believes that your race day is too long.  He wants to know about the possibility of moving up the first post to noon or 12:15.

Bob:  That is one of the things going with 12 races, I think Jeff's right; it's a long day and that is something that we're talking about for the future.  Are 12 races too many?  Do we need to make our post-time earlier?  It is a long day.  What we see some people come early and leave early and then we're also experiencing people coming later.  Guys that are coming off the golf course at 3:30 and they still can get to five, six races, so it's a little bit of the mixed bag there.  If you stayed the whole day, especially we've had some incredible heat like this summer like what we have on the East Coast, so the days are long.  That is one of the issues we're facing with the patrons.  It is a long day and that is something that we will definitely look into for next year.

 

Ron:  Next question, Bill said he's an owner of an outdoor box with six seats and has been coming for years and loves it.  He says you do a great job.  He does want to know whether or not with the success of this meet, any plans to upgrade the facility, particularly in the box seat areas with better furniture and better televisions.

Bob:  The answer is yes.  The TVs that we have out there (not all of them), they are at the end of their lifecycle.  We're looking at that.  We're looking at getting a video board for next year for the infield.  I think that will be our major capital objective of next year, how to get together a first rate video board in the infield.  All of those things, he's right.  We're moving along but at the end of the day, I still am pretty pleased with overall way this whole building is holding up.

 

Ron:  Sure, and also I mean just considering how the economy had been in recent years, I would say it's probably hard to justify making too many of these types of investments, so certainly now  with what's going on you've got a lot more incentive.

Bob:  Well, we spent a lot of money for the Breeders' Cup on the facility.  We did a lot of things that needed to be done...upgrading electric, things that people don't get to see, and we accomplished a lot, put two new tracks in, a new turf course, a new main track, spent a lot of money in the stable areas.  Now, hopefully, we can find the resources to move forward in that direction.

 

Ron:  This next one is not so much a specific question but just someone who has a comment about a rumor going around that it's from up the track.  There's a rumor that your field sizes are starting to shrink because the track is too deep and too gritty with kickback giving a strong bias to horses who have been training over the track road and ship ins.  Is this true and how do you fix this problem?

Bob:  I don't think it's true.  I think that I did a lot of fix it this week, we finally had the first rain in 30 days.  We've had zero rain.

 

Ron:  Nature helps a lot, doesn't it?

Bob:  Nature helps a lot.  I think the turf course as well as the main track needed the rain we got.  With our history of too much rain, I'm not going to wish for rain.  Actually I think talking with the jocks, they feel that the track is playing fair, that good speed horses can win and closers can close.  If anything, there's no bias.  The only bias is that you need to be a good horse.  I think in the past maybe some cheap speed could carry itself further our track.  This year the consensus from the backside from the trainers, from everybody involved is don't change a thing.  Right now, we're pretty pleased with the way everything is going.

 

Ron:  Jay Taylor asked - Does Monmouth Park have a zero tolerance policy in place regarding horse slaughter within the training colony?

Bob:  Zero tolerance policy, I don't know if that's the right thing.  We - the  THA (The Horsemen's Association) and ReRun, we have a program in place and we're pretty pleased with the results the last two years and you know we have the ban on slaughter like everybody else but ReRun is doing a great job for us, the horsemen.  I have the jockeys contribute to ReRun, the trainers and the owners association, us, and we work on a daily basis with ReRun and so far, {knock on wood} everything has been going relatively well.

 

Ron:  Kind of on a related note, Catherine G. writes - Has Monmouth Park taken measures to protect its horses from those wanting to grab your large purses at all costs considering placing the jeopardy some of the horses?  She wants to know whether $37,500 purses for $5,000 claimers actually promotes equine welfare and safety. 

In other words, I guess she wants to know whether or not people will be taking greater risk with marginal horses in order to get these kinds of purses.

 

Bob:  One, most people who are in our business love the animal and that's the furthest thought from their head.  We have the stewards watch some horses that maybe don't belong and we have a stewards list and we have some horses that we told that you don't belong. 

With that said, I think there's much more positive than negative.  When an owner has a chance to make money and pay his bills, he's more apt to do the right thing than the wrong thing.  I think people get desperate when economics come into play.  So if anything, I think the large purses have had a positive effect on the welfare of the horses.  I don't think people are taking advantage of them at all.  There are too many good people taking care of these animals all across the country, I just don't think that's - I think that's a misnomer.  But in any case, some of the people that we have pulled some people up and said that this horse doesn't belong here but overall, I think it's been a very positive effect for the owners and the horsemen.

 

Ron:  We're coming down to the end here, Bob.  Jim Gazelle who is from Matuchin, New Jersey says he's been going to Monmouth Park for many years and has had to put up with sitting in the grandstand with his family and having to endure cigarette and cigar smoke.  He wants to know when smoking will be banned from the grandstand, and he said it's especially bad on crowded a crowded day like Haskell Day when there's only one designated non-smoking section.

Bob:  As we speak, that whole issue is under review and we comply with the law and we're looking at Jim's issue.  It's as anybody who runs a racetrack knows, smoking is a complicated issue but it is currently under review the exact thing what he's talking about.

 

Ron:  Listen Bob, we've had more questions coming in but they were already really been asked and certainly want to thank you for taking your time.  You've been, I think, very upfront and forward about everything.  Our readers obviously wanted to ask you about quite a bit if different things, so I appreciate your openness.  It's got to be very gratifying for you as a racetrack management to be involved in a meet like this.  It has so much of a good feel about it.

Bob:  Yeah, definitely it is.  You know I've been here my whole life since 1963, since I was a little kid, working with horses with my dad and to have the positive energy that's surrounding the meet right now, I think that's the most rewarding thing.  I'm remiss to say I think Mike Dempsey and the racing department have just done a marvelous job putting together good competitive fields.  I'm really pleased with the job they're doing this year as every year, and I just have a great group of people working for us that really care about this place and hopefully, the customers feel that when they come because I have a lot of people that just put their whole life and soul into this place, and we're pretty proud of what we do here.

 

Ron:  Have you had a lot of calls from other racetrack executives around the country asking you how do you get your horsemen to buy into this?

Bob:  It wasn't as much as how do we get the horsemen to buy into this as much as what do the numbers look like?  Is this better or worse?  I think to get the horsemen to buy into it it's through trust, relationships.  I've done everything you can do here, and I just have a great rapport with horsemen and hopefully, it's something that we all can look at and maybe can work with some other jurisdictions, maybe you can't, but I definitely think it's something the industry is going to look at.

 

Ron:  Listen Bob, once again thank you for your time and good luck with the rest of the meet.

Bob:  Okay.  Thanks, Ron.

 

Ron:  This has been Ron Mitchell with BloodHorse.com's Talkin' Horses podcast with Bob Kulina.

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