It’s a lead to a column that can only make sense in 2020: Never have racetrack executives worked so hard to have 3,546 show up on a meet’s biggest day. Well, that was the case “down the Shore” July 17 at Monmouth Park where CEO and chairman Dennis Drazin and his team worked around the clock to put on a Haskell Stakes day program with fans.
In the process, with a solid stakes card and a Del Mar closure due to a multitude of riders’ having tested positive for COVID-19, Monmouth set a non-Breeders’ Cup record for handle, taking in $20,479,392 nationwide.
“We were ecstatic today with the results,” Drazin said the following morning. “Exceeding $20 million in handle is as good as it gets.
“For a facility that can hold 61,000 to have 3,000-4,000 is an empty feeling…having said that, you have to put things into perspective.”
New Jersey resident Jim Gagliano, president and COO of The Jockey Club (TJC owns 51% of BloodHorse) was at the Haskell. He noted his fellow patrons on the day were more of the hardcore horseplayer types, which is to be expected. One has to be pretty motivated these days to join any size gathering. What was missing is the family element, which is what helps fill the stands at most Haskells, as well as the teen segment.
“It was interesting on the first turn you could hear the jockeys yelling at each other,” Gagliano said. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before.”
What wasn’t missing were face coverings. It’s the new fashion statement.
“I think I heard several people, including one of the owners of (Haskell winner) Authentic, it was kind of like the first time they felt a little ‘normal’ again,” Drazin reported. “It was normal—the new normal. People had face masks on; people were social distancing; people were behaving themselves. Everything went smoothly. I’m proud of my team.”
Monmouth, like every other track in the country, has struggled with guidance during COVID-19. Following state and local ordinances which change at a moment’s notice, is a headache but vital to stay open, conduct business, and keep employees and customers safe. From a management level, that is the “new normal.” It ain’t easy. Drazin explains:
“You have regular meetings to plan all of the operational things: strategy for the meet; about the day, the entries, what races to use and how many to write; the ins and outs of the day-to-day operation. That’s all something we are used to. Those run like clockwork. But then you have all of the other components.
“We had COVID-19 codes and restriction and protocol, and we had to send those to the state, and they had to send them to the department of health, and then they had to review those with the governor’s office. The racing commission had to sign off, and the gaming enforcement had to sign off, and then I had to update my staff on all of the changes and implement all of the changes. That’s only a small part of it.
“Then the negotiations with the governor’s office about how many fans we could have. That’s something we are not used to doing, negotiating about how many bodies you can have in a facility.
“Then we had the jockey issue—which we talked about (winning rider) Mike Smith—could he come in (from California); could he not come in. We had to talk to our medical director and go over those protocols. We felt that when Mike flew in, if he went from the airport to a lab, took a test, was negative, that he could ride.
“Then we dealt with our customers; the fans that have been so loyal to Monmouth and to the Haskell for years. When we first got the permission for tickets, we were told 500. They sold out in two minutes, and a lot of people were unhappy because they couldn’t get in. As the week went on, we got incrementally more tickets to sell.
“Then we had to deal with a question about the heat; were we going to have a hot day again like last year? A week out we were talking with the racing commissioner and tracking the heat index.”
How about that for a week? It’s no wonder Drazin said: “You can never rest on your laurels, but when I got up today, I felt pretty good. It’s rewarding because you feel good about what you are doing, but it takes a lot of time and effort.
“I used to be able to have a conversation with somebody and figure everything out. It takes time, but it is well defined and organized. Now you get on a Zoom call with 60 people and everyone wants to talk and it takes four hours to do the same thing you used to do in 15 minutes.”
It was well worth it for the 3,546 in the stands. It makes sense in 2020.