Monmouth Park to open thoroughbred meet Friday with fans

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

FILE - In this July 31, 2015, file photo, people watch as Triple Crown winner American Pharoah with Jorge Alvarez up trains at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J. With the opening of the thoroughbred season at Monmouth Park just days away, chief executive Dennis Drazin knows the track will be beating the odds by just breaking even. The coronavirus pandemic has idled the New Jersey Shore track for two months. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

With the opening of the thoroughbred season at Monmouth Park days away, chief executive Dennis Drazin knows the odds are against the track making a profit.

The coronavirus pandemic has idled the New Jersey shore facility for almost two months while officials in the hard-hit state waited for the risks from COVID-19 to subside. The track reduced the scheduled 56-day meet to 37 dates.

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With no racing, there is no money.

The wait ends Friday. Monmouth Park is starting off with an unexpected daily double. It will have both racing and people in attendance, a rarity at major horse racing tracks around the country.

New York held the Belmont Stakes on June 20 without fans. California and Maryland are not allowing fans. Florida is doing it on a limited basis. Officials at Churchill Downs in Kentucky plan to allow a limited number of fans for the Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5 in the rejiggered Triple Crown schedule.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy cleared the way for fans to attend less than two weeks ago.

“It’s been a struggle getting here and I kind of refused to give up,” Drazin said this week in a phone interview with The Associated Press. "Our CFO said it would be tough to get to opening day. There was no hesitation in my saying: ‘We are not closing, we are going to run a meet this year. We’re going to do the best we can.’”

This won't be your average day at the races.

Fans entering the facility will have their temperatures taken and be asked about potential contact with people infected with the coronavirus. Once inside, they will have to wear masks and practice social distancing.

Track capacity has been limited to 25%, which is roughly 15,000 fans.

Don't expect that many. The track averaged 9,129 fans last year. Its single-day record is 60,983 in 2015 when Triple Crown winner American Pharoah raced in the Haskell Invitational.

Drazin has walked around the track's 300 acres in recent weeks and said the track can reasonably handle 15,000 fans. Social distancing will be enforced.

“If we don’t enforce the rules, shame on us," said Drazin, chairman and CEO of Darby Development LLC, which operates the track. "Then the governor is going to say: ‘I gave you guys the opportunity to have fans there and you ignored my rules, now I am rolling that back.’ We don’t want that.”

Murphy on Monday scrapped plans to allow for limited indoor dining over concerns about the virus.

Admission and parking at the track will be free. Unlike last year, fans cannot bring food and alcohol. Concession stands will be open. Dining is only permitted outdoors with social distancing.

Drazin said the track's top concern is protecting its customers. Medical personnel will monitor temperatures and social screening. Extra workers will be there to make sure counters are cleaned and betting screens are sanitized frequently. Plexiglass windows have been placed in front of the betting tellers.

“People want to feel more comfortable,” Drazin said. “I feel people feel safer the more you do.”

Still, he admits the system is not fail-safe.

The highlight of the meet will be the running of the Haskell for 3-year-olds on July 17. Some colts and fillies will use the 1 1/8 mile race as a prep for the Kentucky Derby.

Tiz the Law, who won the Belmont Stakes in front of eerily empty grandstands, won't be in the race. The New York-bred colt will race in the Travers at Saratoga next month.

That could be good for the Haskell. It will create a more wide-open race, which could attract a big field.

Drazin said the track will offer the same average in daily purses, and he is hopeful it attracts good fields for a meet that runs through Sept. 27. Racing will be held on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

“I don’t think we are making a lot of money this year," Drazin said. "I don’t think you are going to see a profit this year. If we could break even, I would be ecstatic.”

Drazin's hopes for a perfect season would be big fields, no horses being injured and everyone staying healthy. He wants to get through this crisis.

"Everything else you can fix down the road,” he said.

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