The ’Cup runneth over!

Oct 23, 2007 12:52 AM

Most bets at Monmouth Park don’t work out this well.

The Breeders’ Cup comes to Monmouth Park next weekend, but thoroughbred racing’s biggest event began paying dividends months ago. The 137-year-old horse track received a $30 million renovation from the state, and area businesses are counting on a huge payout.

Officials also hope that a weekend of national television coverage, showcasing Monmouth Park and some of the world’s top horses, will spark interest in the sagging racing industry.

But they are certain it will have a broad impact on the state economy, since the track is usually closed in October.

The 11 Breeders’ Cup races, to be run Oct. 26-27, have combined purses of $23 million. That should set a record for American racing and perhaps attract new fans to the sport, according to George R. Zoffinger, president of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which operates the track.

The Breeders’ Cup will be the biggest event ever hosted by Monmouth Park, whose classic grandstand is six miles north of Asbury Park. It represents a rare bright spot for a struggling industry.

"We hope to use it as a day for people to look at our racing business and see if they can get interested in it," said Zoffinger, whose agency also operates the Meadowlands Racetrack at its sports complex in East Rutherford.

Tracks in New Jersey and around the nation have suffered as gamblers have increasingly favored casinos over horse tracks, where aficionados often spend hours studying recent races and horses’ bloodlines.

At tracks where betting declined, purses got smaller, so top horses went elsewhere and fewer fans went to those tracks, starting a downward spiral.

Garden State Park in Cherry Hill closed in 2001, while the Atlantic City Racetrack has been reduced to a nine-day meet. The only other track in New Jersey, aside from the two sports authority tracks, is Freehold Raceway, which still has live racing 11 months of the year.

Part of the problem is that horse racing hasn’t attracted young fans.

"People who bet on horses are getting older," Zoffinger said.

Monmouth Park won out over several tracks, including Del Mar in California, to win its first Breeders’ Cup.

Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense and Preakness winner Curlin will meet again in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, the richest race in the North America.

The actual monetary benefit to the state is likely to be larger than $60 million, said one of the authors of the economic estimate, Michael L. Lahr, associate director of the Rutgers Economic Advisory Service.

Lahr called the projection "conservative," noting it did not account for any winnings by local horses or Breeders’ Cup spending by New Jersey citizens.

Besides the Breeders’ Cup races, there will be two additional days of racing for four total at a time when the track is usually closed. That means another paycheck for about 1,000 workers, Monmouth Park spokesman John Heims said.

The workers will be needed to handle a sellout crowd of 45,000 for the Breeders’ Cup, he said. Three-quarters of the spectators are expected from out of state, according to the Rutgers study.

The $30 million investment in renovations was paid to several hundred construction firms, workers and suppliers.

Among the projects at the track, where many structures date to 1946, much of the grandstand roof was replaced, and a new sound system installed. Escalators and elevators were replaced. The 1-mile dirt track got a new base, and the 7/8-mile turf track got new grass. The winner’s circle was expanded, and spectators in the 240 box seats now have private televisions.

The race is a boost to the horse racing industry in New Jersey, where government has taken some steps to preserve horse farms and racing, while also encouraging the expansion of Atlantic City casinos ”” a prime competitor for gambling dollars.

"It’s a difficult balance," Van Drew acknowledged.

His state Senate counterpart, Barbara Buono, also expects a long-term gain from the $30 million investment, which she viewed as "very effective advertising dollars the state is spending to enhance tourism."