All eyes on Monmouth Park for next three months

Tired of seeing less-than-stellar horses running in five- and six-horse fields? Apparently many fans are because weekday crowds at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, especially, have been shrinking in recent years.

It’s no question this industry is in trouble, both in California and nationally. The horse population continues to decrease and purse sizes at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park have shrunk to the point where many horsemen either have gone elsewhere or are considering a move.

Enter Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., which hosts the $1 million Haskell Invitational each summer and was the site of the 2007 Breeders’ Cup. The 65-year-old race track is stepping out of the box and trying something new for its current 50-day meet — a three-day race week (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) that will offer close to $1 million per day in purses.

The goal? To attract more fans, bigger fields, a larger handle and the top horses in the country. You can bet your last two bucks every race track president in America will be watching to see how this experiment turns out.

Monmouth hit a home run on opening day Saturday, drawing 17,903 on-track fans compared to 10,292 in 2009. The handle went through the roof as $9,357,444 was bet compared to $4,279,438 last year. It was the highest handle at Monmouth other than a Haskell Day or on Breeders’ Cup weekend three years ago.

I’ve long believed that there is too much racing in Southern California. Give the fans less of something and they get hungry. Keep giving them five-day race weeks and the product becomes stale and sometimes boring, particularly when you’re seeing small fields and a constant parade of even-money winners.

“I think the concept behind this – 50 days, 50 million – is pretty clear,” John Forbes, the longtime trainer and current president of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (NJTHA), told the Daily Racing Form. “It’s responding to what the customer is looking for: quality horses and decent-sized fields. We can’t keep asking the customer to come out for seven-horse fields.”

Monmouth also did the fans a favor by introducing a 50-cent pick five with only a 15 percent takeout. The tracks in Southern California need to step up and try similar new wagering, which Del Mar plans to do soon. Congrats to Del Mar for its plans to offer a 50-cent late pick four this summer.

Forbes is right. Look at Santa Anita, which still attracts large crowds on big days when there are full fields and top-notch horses. There are still a mess of people out there who love horse racing, but the sport is losing some because the sport’s quality is decreasing.

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