New Jersey, which discovered that casino money is not the silver bullet to cure Thoroughbred racing's ills, is taking a different approach to saving the sport.
It's emulating Keeneland.
It's more of a strategic emulation than one of aesthetics. As Keeneland's limited number of race dates pitches a successful less-is-more quality, Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., is trying to engineer a transformation from day-to-day despair to an "event" status designed to attract horses and patrons.
So far, so good.
True, Monmouth is just two race days into its "Million Dollar Meet," a 50-day stretch in which races are run only on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and holiday Mondays up through the track's famed Haskell Stakes on Aug. 1.
Still, last Saturday's opening-day crowd of 17,903 represented a 74 percent increase over last year's opening day, and the betting handle for the first weekend doubled that of the first two days of last year's meet.
The reason? Fewer dates means bigger purses, bigger fields, better horses, bigger payouts and happy bettors.
Truth was, much like the sport in general, New Jersey racing was stretched way too thin. The 141 racing dates proved far too many for a declining supply of runners and fans, which in turn turned off bettors. Monmouth's handle fell to $3.1 million per day, a drop in the bucket compared with Saratoga's average daily handle of $14.1 million.
Yes, Monmouth receives Atlantic City casino money, or does through this final year of its agreement with the state. But the casino money was not enough to supplement purses for an oversupply of New Jersey races and dates. The same is holding true at Delaware Park and Philadelphia Park.
So Monmouth negotiated with its home state and its horsemen to cut its meet way back, in exchange for bolstering purses to about $1 million per race day, topping even Saratoga's daily average.
There's a precedent behind the plan. Visit Saratoga, where families show up early to claim picnic tables, or Del Mar, where the crowds can almost smell the ocean, or Keeneland, where often nearly 30,000 come to the races.
Keeneland races 32 days this year. Saratoga expanded its meet by four days to 40 for this summer. Del Mar runs from July 21 through Sept. 8. The meets at all three tracks are special events.
Monmouth was certainly an event the first weekend. The 24 races the first two days averaged 9.62 starters, a healthy number considering the trend toward smaller fields. Payouts increased, as well. On opening day, Monmouth's winners paid an average of $15.68 for a $2 win bet. At Belmont Park, the payout was $13.85.
The money is a draw on all sides. Trainers Todd Pletcher, Nick Zito, Rick Dutrow, Kiaran McLaughlin, Bill Mott, Linda Rice and Barclay Tagg all ran horses at Monmouth the first weekend. Jockeys Garrett Gomez and John Velazquez have made Monmouth their base track.
Not everyone is happy, of course. There is never complete happiness in horse racing. Some horsemen worry that not enough attention is being paid to lesser races. Some trainers worry that Monmouth's strategy is a one-year pose to show the state it is worthy of re-upping the deal for casino supplements.
But it's a sensible step in the right direction. The sport doesn't need more races and more race dates, diluting the product. It needs to make the product stand out, with more accessible dates and attractive promotions — i.e. the night racing that proved a Churchill Downs hit.
Consider the current sporting landscape for an object lesson. As there are more and more games, interest and attendance for college basketball continue to drop. (Just not here.) On the flip side, college football plays but once a week, and interest continues to soar.
It's that minimalist approach that is part of Keeneland's appeal. Monmouth hopes to tap into just that.
Who knows, less-is-more just might save the sport.