By Michael Hill
When a royal thoroughbred — and Triple Crown winner — arrives by a special 747 and gets a police escort up the highway to visit you, you tidy up the place a little.
“We’ve probably spent $200,000, $300,000 on capital improvements or upgrades, things that we were planning, but maybe not to do this year,” said Monmouth Park Racetrack President Bob Kulina.
But, this year is unlike any other with American Pharoah racing Sunday in Monmouth Park’s 48th Haskell Invitational. So Monmouth has added picnic areas, it’s rented outside parking lots, added dozens of betting machines, installed $40,000 worth of new TVs and hired 20 painters instead of three to spruce up the buildings.
It’s nearly doubled the million-dollar stakes to $1,750,000. For an event likely to draw more than 60,000 fans and break the New Jersey attendance record for 2007’s Breeder’s Cup here.
“This is the Breeder’s Cup on steroids,” Kulina said.
With horse racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years coming here, this has turned in to a mega marketing moment not just for Monmouth Park but for Monmouth County as well.
The park has turned this year’s Haskell from a one-day to a three-day event, calling it the “Pharoah Phan Phestival.”
“I guess all third grade teachers will be a little upset with our spelling,” Kulina said.
“Absolutely, we feel the impact of American Pharoah and the Haskell for this Sunday, but we are telling people that there are still some rooms available,” said Sal Giorgio.
Giorgio is sales manager at the Sheraton Eatontown and works in admissions at Monmouth Park. He says Jersey Shore hotels and restaurants usually do well on summer Fridays and Saturdays but racing fans raced to book rooms when American Pharoah’s New Jersey owners said he’d run in the Haskell.
“It’s going to be an exciting weekend. Haskell is always a great weekend. It’s always a lot of fun. Always a big crowd, but this obviously is bigger and better than anything,” Girogio said.
Some estimate American Pharoah will add some $20 million to the shore’s economy this weekend. Freeholder Tom Arnone seems to be among the believers.
“We needed this. This is great for the community. It’s great for the county and it’s great for all the businesses that surround this area and quite frankly because of the popularity it’s even expanded to outside the shore area,” he said.
Arnone encourages racing fans and beachergoers to ride share this weekend even though New Jersey Transit plans to add trains for an event that has wider implications than who crosses the wire first.
“This is definitely more than a horse race. This is making a statement for all the critics that horse racing is dead. No, it’s not dead! We have to do a better job of repackaging it, rebranding it, remarketing it and I think American Pharoah allows us the opportunity to do this,” Kulina said.
“My crystal ball was right,” said Dennis Drazin.
Monmouth Park Adviser Drazin predicted all this — that American Pharoah would win the Triple Crown and would race in the Haskell. Now, another prediction.
“When I was a kid and other people around here saw the great champions of the past, you know, we still talk about remember when Secretariat ran, remember when Seattle Slew ran? And the younger generation of today is going to be saying, ‘Gee, I was at Monmouth Park when American Pharoah ran.’ This is going to give us the lifeblood that we need to continue horse racing in to the future,” Drazin said.
For now, it’s hard to harness the Haskell and American Pharoah excitement.