Back to the Past (and Future?) in New Jersey - By George Bernet

(Originally published in the Sept 4, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)  

Monmouth Park’s grand 2010 experiment (less is more because more was way too much) has been going for 15 weeks now, and assessments are underway nationally to find out what all the numbers mean. 

Some folks out there are even trying to handicap just what the hell the governor was thinking when he read some half-baked report and arbitrarily wrote off New Jersey racing on what seemed a bizarre whim.

But a word of caution for those who think they have a handle on the Thoroughbred racing situation in the Garden State: This is New Jersey; we don’t really care what you think.

The simple fact of the matter is that, one way or another, there will always be a Monmouth Park, because the state of New Jersey needs Monmouth Park.

Certainly more than the “Resort of Racing” needs the state. The fact is, it’s outlasted a boondoggle of politicians—good, bad, and indifferent—over the past 140 years, and I’m betting it will outlast a gerrymander more in decades to come.

The sandy loam beneath the racetrack’s stuccoed walls holds cherished history. The 1778 Battle of Monmouth (which took place in Freehold, not that far away), where Gen. Washington and the boys fought the Redcoats to a draw on a brutally hot day and where Molly Pitcher got to do her thing loading the cannons and tending the wounded, is a good place to start.

Then on to the 19th century and appearances by President Ulysses Simpson Grant, and then later by celebs-of-the-day Lillian Russell, Diamond Jim Brady, and Lily Langtry.

And then the politicians closed it down in 1893. But after some time, when natural selection sent those pols to their venal Valhalla, the stage was set for Amory Haskell and Phil Iselin to restore racing to its proper place in the state, which happened just after World War II was declared official.

I made my first appearance at Monmouth in 1954, and I cashed my first win ticket on Pet Bully, who paid $8.40. My father, who went to the track as soon as he was discharged from the Navy in 1946, charged me 10% for putting in the bet.
What has the past got to do with the 2010 Elite Summer Meet? Everything.

One of the main architects of this Elite Meet is Bob Kulina, like me a Jersey guy who has a sense of history. Bob grew up at Monmouth Park in the glory days (see, even Springsteen was influenced by the racetrack) of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, when his dad, Joe, was one of the top trainers in the state.

This kind of boutique meet sprang from Bob’s long-held desire to go back to those days, the time when Monmouth Park represented everything that made Thoroughbred racing the greatest game played outdoors.

Certainly, reminders of that past are everywhere you look at Monmouth. The beech trees in the walking ring were planted on V-J Day. Some of the tellers selling you tickets have been at their posts since the pari-mutuel laws were passed. I’m thinking they built the grandstand around these guys. Some of the waitresses taking your orders in the dining room were on hand when Kelso won the 1960 Choice Handicap. And there aren’t many tracks around where you can find, on any given race day in 2010, horseplayers who tore up tickets on June 19, 1946.

To all of U.S. racing, the attendance and betting numbers are key to this meet, proving that fewer racing days and more horses per race add up to sound business.

To me, the numbers are the least important part about the Great Experiment of 2010. The most salient fact in my mind is that racing at Monmouth Park is fun again. The main track and turf course are in great shape. The horsemen are happy. The racing is competitive. I have as much trouble cashing tickets in 12-horse fields as I did in the ’60s. For those reasons I would deem this meet a complete success.

Oh, and Mr. Guv—tear up that stupid report, put on your shorts, and enjoy the racetrack’s picnic area with your kids as you watch New Jersey’s state animal in glorious action.

Monmouth Park ain’t going away anytime soon.

George Bernet, the former editor of the Daily Racing Form, is a Monmouth Park publicist

Recent Posts

More Blogs