By John Burton
OCEANPORT – The operators of Monmouth Park thoroughbred racetrack said it’s not just about horseracing and gaming; it’s now also about the food.
In the five years that Darby Development LLC has been operating the track, “The single most common complaint I’ve had,” said Darby advisor Dennis Drazin, “has been the food.”
And as the track prepares for its 72nd horseracing season beginning Saturday, May 13, Drazin said the emphasis has been on beefing up food quality and service at the track.
“We’ve decided to change the food culture here,” he said during the annual press conference at the track on Tuesday, marking the beginning of the racing season. To accomplish it, track operators have created the position of vice president of food and beverage and have appointed Thomas Barone to fill the job.
Barone runs the Blu Grotto Ristorante on the track grounds, a fine dining venue with a beer garden that opened last year as Darby Development looked to position the struggling track as an entertainment destination.
Barone said his position has allowed him and his staff flexibility in selecting vendors for the various food outlets at the track to ensure the best ingredients. “We’re lucky enough to be in this area where great ingredients are in abundance,” he said.
Another strategic move on Barone’s part was to lower the price of bottle beers. He announced on Tuesday that the price will drop from $8 for a bottle of imported beer, to $5; and from $7 to $5 for the domestic variety. This pricing, Barone maintained, is another way to make the destination that much more competitive for the consumers’ discretionary income. “The best bang for the buck is the best way to go here at Monmouth Park,” he said.
There are plans for the season to offer a variety of craft beers and a barbeque location among the eateries. The track this year will also feature Max’s Famous Hot Dogs and Lighthouse Italian Ices concessions, two traditional draws for the Jersey Shore. “We think these are great additions,” Barone said.
Drazin acknowledged it’s been a difficult time for Monmouth Park, as it continues to try to compete against tracks in New York and Pennsylvania which have been able to adopt casino-like gaming and attractions. That has impacted Monmouth Park’s ability to offer competitive purses and top-tier horses and trainers. There has been a ripple effect in the horse breeding industry in Monmouth County, which has been in decline.
A voter referendum on last November’s ballot would have bypassed Monmouth County and allowed for new casinos, but only in Northern New Jersey. Voters defeated that initiative.
Drazin, a Red Bank attorney who also represents the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said he’s continuing the battle to bring other forms of gaming to the track; on top of that, Drazin said he remains hopeful the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to hear the appeal to allow sports gambling outside of the four states (Nevada, Oregon, Montana and Delaware) that currently allow it. Drazin and others have tried to open up that market but have been defeated in the federal courts blocked by national groups like the National Basketball Association and the National Football League, opposed to expanding the practice.
“We have to focus on the younger generation,” to be sustainable, Drazin stressed. He said things like video gaming, fantasy sports and sports gaming would appeal to a younger audience. “We have to try all of those,” he said.
Since taking control of the park in 2012, after Gov. Chris Christie announced the state would no longer operate racetracks, Darby Development has sought to expand the track’s appeal, opening additional restaurants, and miniature golf and other attractions, hoping to increase attendance, with mixed results.
Drazin went on to say “both sides of the aisle” among the local state representatives in Legislature “have always supported Monmouth Park.” But traditionally, “it takes three people to get anything done in Trenton:” the governor, the Senate president and Assembly leader; and it hasn’t always been possible to get all three to see the benefits of Monmouth Park, Drazin acknowledged.
But with the coming November election and a change in the Governor’s Office, “Everyone seems to be on the same page in helping Monmouth Park,” among the candidates, he said.
State Senator Richard Codey (D-27), who represents Essex County, offered his support for the park and horseracing in the state, maintaining “racing is not a partisan issue.”
“This industry is not dead,” Codey offered. “It may be hurting, but it’s not dead.”
Drazin did offer a positive note, concluding, “At the end of the day, I’m pleased to say, we’re preserving horseracing here in New Jersey.”
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