A report issued in July 2010 by Jon F. Hanson, a top adviser to first-year Gov. Chris Christie, was titled “Report of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on New Jersey Gaming, Sports, and Entertainment.”
But for New Jersey horsemen — and everyone involved in any capacity in the standard and thoroughbred segments of the horse racing industry — it might as well have been called “The Shock Heard Round the World.”
In seven of the report’s 29 pages, the Christie administration laid out its intention to “get the state out of the horse racing business” as soon as possible with an end to its operation of the Meadowlands Racetrack and Monmouth Park.
And while the latter track’s circumstance wasn’t labeled nearly as grimly as the Meadowlands’ was in the report, ultimately it would take a monumental effort by state Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association President John Forbes to secure the privatization of Monmouth Park and get a deal to the finish line 18 months later.
So for those who enjoy a weekend summer afternoon at Monmouth Park in the coming months and years, it would only be proper to raise a glass to Forbes — who died on Sunday at age 73.
“John led the charge in New Jersey to save an industry,” current Monmouth Park operator Dennis Drazin told NJ Online Gambling Monday.
“John embodied everything good about this business — honor, integrity, compassion, and selflessness,” Drazin told ThoroughbredDailyNews.com. “More than that, John had an infectious energy for racing.”
The fits and starts of a Monmouth deal
Christie’s 2010 plan for horse racing did contain some potentially good news for Forbes’ group: The state agreed before the mid-July start of the 2010 summer racing calendar to fund a 50-day, nearly $50 million “elite meet” described as “experimental in nature,” in the hopes that a shortening of the calendar along with a rise in purses could make the track financially viable.
The drop from 141 annual race dates to only 50 was projected to allow the state to break even on the thoroughbred side, after years of multi-million dollar losses.
“This plan is unprecedented in the way it involves a major racing organization and a horsemen’s association drastically altering their existing race schedule and collaborating on a race meet of national stature,” Hanson wrote. “It is what all fans of sports demand — a high quality product.”
The summer meet indeed drew more fans, more wagers, and more attention thanks to the enhanced purse structure.
But in a supplemental report posted in November 2010, Hanson described “sober financial results” for Monmouth Park: an operating loss of $6.6 million. With the Meadowlands losing almost twice as much money, the state’s horse racing industry was now in even deeper trouble.
“After considering numerous financial models, we have reached the conclusion that there is no viable self-sustaining industry model based upon two government-operated race tracks,” Hanson wrote.
That meant a likely shutdown of the Meadowlands Racetrack (until New York real estate mogul Jeff Gural saved the day). The 2011 Monmouth meet, meanwhile, would feature only 59 dates.
The crisis deepens
Forbes fired back with guns blazing at the report, saying, “The most recent recommendations from chairman Hanson would destroy thoroughbred racing and breeding in New Jersey. To reduce our calendar from the statutory requirement of 141 days to 59 would take away too many jobs from New Jersey citizens working in the horse racing industry.”
Still, by the traditional Opening Day in May 2011, it appeared that the state had worked out a deal for Resorts Casino Atlantic City owner Morris Bailey, also a horseman, to take over the track.
Complicated negotiations — because Christie wanted to entwine the transfer of Monmouth Park to Bailey alongside handing the Meadowlands keys over to Gural simultaneously — ensued for six months.
Then in early December, a last-minute dispute led Bailey to walk away — resulting in near-chaos in the state’s horse racing industry. Christie, while imposing a one-week deadline to prevent a shutdown of operations at Monmouth Park, called Forbes’ group “completely untrustworthy.”
“If [the thoroughbred horsemen] don’t come to us in the next week with a deal that works and stop extorting the taxpayers for millions of dollars in subsidies for their industry, then we’re not going to have a deal and we’re not going to have a horse racing industry in this state anymore,” said Christie in typically fiery fashion. “I am hopeful in the next seven days they’ll come to their senses.”
“To say that the horsemen are untrustworthy is absurd,” Forbes fired back at the time. “If there’s anyone untrustworthy here, it’s not the thoroughbred horsemen.”
Said Drazin this week of Forbes’ personality: “John said what he meant, and he wasn’t afraid.”
Cooler heads — including that of Drazin, who at that point had resigned as chairman of the state racing commission to lead negotiations for the horsemen — soon prevailed.
The horsemen then took over operations of the track, with Drazin’s Darby Development running the show.
“Here we are nine years later,” Drazin said. “I remember how hard it was making that deal happen — and then telling John as I was leaving the closing that ‘Now the hard work begins!’”
Forbes: A horseman’s life
A Maryland native, Forbes first started racing at Monmouth Park in the 1970s, and he was immediately smitten.
“Not many of the remaining racetracks in the country have the charm and ambience of this place,” Forbes told SI.com in 2014. “That’s why we stayed. It’s a little hard to describe how Monmouth captures you. But it’s a step back in time.”
The Daily Racing Form has called Forbes, with more than 2,100 wins in 40 years as a trainer, the state’s winningest thoroughbred trainer.
But his behind-the-scenes work to save the industry endeared him to colleagues even more.
“Without John Forbes, this industry would have been over,” said Drazin.
Forbes’ family has requested that anyone who wishes to make a donation in his honor should send it to the Backstretch Community Assistance Program at Monmouth Park.