J.N. Campbell, Commentary: The Monmouth Interregnum

The 'Home of the Haskell' (July 18th) takes center stage this week, as their schedule kicks into high gear. J.N. Campbell offers commentary about the track's place in Thoroughbred racing. Perspective below ...
The "Home of the Haskell" (July 18th) takes center stage this week, as their schedule kicks into high gear. J.N. Campbell offers commentary about the track's place in Thoroughbred racing. Perspective below ...

Does it appear that Monmouth Park, the home to the Haskell Invitational, is gravitating between a pair of diametrically opposed positions? To put it another way, are we witnessing Thoroughbred progressivism that stands as the model for the future of the sport? While at the same time doesn't it seem like an organization wandering around under the proverbial lamppost trying to find a set of lost car keys, only looking where it is lit? Which is the more accurate attribution?

It’s complicated, is a response that comes to mind. Racetracks always are ...

When it comes to Monmouth Park, news continues to emanate. To put it metaphorically, it at times churns like the water off “The Shore” in Oceanport, New Jersey. Like a riptide, a range of reactionary policies unfurl all at once, with an undertow depositing us ham-handed on the beach. To get specific, since we are speaking of perceived paradoxes, there are a myriad of controversies brewing. There is Monmouth’s lack of support for HISA (Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act) … their stiff riding crop stand … their implementation of fixed odds wagering … their strident support of Bob Baffert … and a number of other “positions” that are somewhere between refreshing to some and dystopian to others.

Some of that has to do with Monmouth’s operational flowchart, I think. They are “owned” not by one centralized entity, like the Stronach Group; rather, it is a confederation of interests that includes both the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSEA) and what is called an “operator” in Darby Development LLC.  The latter is headed by a CEO Dennis Drazin, who as a longtime influencer has come in many guises over the years—horse owner, administrator, witness, etc. I like his bravado and especially the way he handles questions. It is a mix of square talk coupled with good manners.

Drazin is in a difficult position; I get it. Helmspeople sail close to the rocks, but also manage the winds that originate from on high. It is a dicey situation, and you want someone who understands how to speak politically and diplomatically all at once. As the leading voice of the “operator,” he has to be cautious because he is carrying out orders from the NJSEA, but he also has the history and the freedom to speak his mind. He has become the “face” of Monmouth, for good or for ill, and I think they are lucky to have such a “sharp” in their midst. I use that moniker in the best possible fashion because you want someone in command who pushes the envelope, making the mainstream do a doubletake.

The main problem though, and it is fairly prosaic, pertains to the aggregate. Taken as a whole, how will Monmouth’s choices in the present impact the future? Will say, 50 years from now, Thoroughbred pundits wax fondly, finding progressivism and cutting-edge ideas? For instance, their ban on use of the riding crop, except under duress … Their perspective to some seems revolutionary when compared to the rest of North America, but to others (especially the Jockey’s Guild of Am.), they are putting their colony in extreme peril. Which perspective should rule?

The future has yet to be written … so, conjecture is what we have, coupled with a practiced set of prior experiences. Best I can tell, Drazin and his team seem to be presiding over what could be deemed an “interregnum.” Contextually, that amounts to a period of discontinuity or "gap" in a government, organization, or social order. That’s what we have … Monmouth is forward-thinking, outdistancing their colleagues in the Thoroughbred world by taking on issues that others would feign as insurmountable. Fixed odds … yet another example of embracing something totally foreign to post-modern horse racing in America. The idea that one could hold a ticket in hand, and know precisely the payout is astounding if you consider the history of pari-mutuel betting this side of the Atlantic.

Monmouth is leading the charge. But is it pointed in the proper direction? Hmm …

With all those questions in hand … you could turn and look at issues like embracing the HISA or allowing Bob Baffert to race at your track, and the track by “The Shore,” looks rather behind the times. How can this be? Is this a local vs. national argument for Monmouth? Do they want to retain their rights and their image as a “pro-Horsepeople” organization? It certainly looks as such. In 2020, Drazin was vocal about his distrust of oversight by the federal government on these matters, and he thought it judicious to address issues within the state of New Jersey instead. As for Baffert, though it was not publicly stated, the implication is he helps print vouchers and tickets. Enough said …

For all its spirit, Monmouth occupies this “between worlds” social space, as a racetrack that is bridging both the past and the future. There are not bouncing between poles, overtly progressive in nature, or wandering around under the lamppost. Right now, they are evolving, in an attempt to survive during a combined period of upheaval and great expansion. The diaspora of the Thoroughbred will be severely affected by the growth of sports betting. Monmouth and its Darby “operator” knows this to be true. After all, they are ground zero in the United States for some of the most aggressive “manifest destiny” in wagering. Drazin and his team understand the writing on this wall, and the sooner that they make arrangements to ride that “coattail effect,” the better.

I am not sure how Monmouth Park will be understood decades from now, but I sure wish I knew. Will it serve as a beacon for innovative design, or as an example of what poor marketing, investment, and strategic planning looks like. Not written, yet … What I will say, is that the excitement and controversy they are generating from the Oceanport plain is more than just food for thought. Some might view it as trial and error. Maybe … But lest we forget, a period of decentralization and/or unrest can serve as a launch pad for trailblazing. There is that history where governments and society morph and change over time because of a time just like this one.

Let’s watch and keenly observe ... what do you say, Thoroughbred milieu? The “Monmouth Interregnum” is in full-swing …

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