The Day the Haskell Came of Age

As American Pharoah prepares for his assault on Monmouth Park in the Haskell Invitational, and with a record crowd projected, there will be electricity in the air unlike anything felt at the Jersey Shore in a century and a half.

A great deal has transpired at Monmouth over the years, going back to post-Civil War days.

Monmouth has had a long and storied history and has been a microcosm of racing in America since 1870, complete with a “Civil War” showdown in 1871 between Longfellow, the pride of the South, and the North’s Harry Bassett. Over a quarter of a million dollars was bet on the race, with much of the money on Longfellow being raised by the mortgaging of plantations by prominent Southerners. Harry Bassett was heavily backed by Northern and Western cash. Over 25,000 jammed the track to witness the South rise again for a brief moment, as Longfellow came home the easy winner.

 It is safe to say no track has been as innovative as Monmouth over the years, especially during the reign of Amory Haskell and then Phil Iselin.

But few people realize that in 1891, reformist elements waged a war on racing when outlaw tracks such as Guttenberg and other small plants sprung up around the Garden State, forcing Monmouth to transfer its meet to the old Morris and Jerome Parks in New York.

Monmouth was dealt its fatal blow in 1892 when two of its mainstays, George Lorillard and David D. Withers, who were part of the syndicate that purchased the track in 1878, died in succession. Although the track ran successful meets in 1892 and ’93, the reformists, along with the state Legislature and an ambitious district attorney from Monmouth County put the seal on Monmouth’s demise. There would be no racing there for the next 53 years.

It wasn’t until 1944 that Amory Haskell formed a corporation to build a new Monmouth Park. Haskell hired Phil Iselin as chairman of the construction committee, and on June 14, 1946, Monmouth’s great tradition was reborn.

One by one, the innovations mounted. Haskell, an opera buff, built the unique parterre boxes, patterned after the Golden Horseshoe boxes at the Metropolitan Opera House. Each box had its own overhead fan, a dining table in the rear, cushioned chairs up front for viewing the races, and a buzzer on the wall to summon your waitress.

Among its other innovations were a 75-foot-long swimming pool for the jockeys, air conditioning in the pressbox, a ferry service from New York City, a two-way intercom system from the stewards to the patrol judges, the installation of a teletimer, electrical timing of fractions of races, the posting of a shoeboard (informing fans of the types of shoes worn by the horses), and projection of the first color television from a racetrack.

Monmouth also installed the first closed-circuit videotape control TV, was the first racetrack in the world to have hot water running in every barn, the first track to have identification and clocking of horses working out, the first track to have escalators in both the grandstand and clubhouse, and was one of the pioneers of grass racing and steeplechase racing.

Haskell, who was a Master of Hounds, horse breeder, clubman, amateur actor, politician, and businessman, was always concerned about backstretch conditions and fire safety. Each barn was placed 100 feet apart, had toilets, showers, and living quarters. All stalls were fireproofed, each barn had fire boxes, and there were three fire patrol jeeps equipped with short-wave telephones, with a man on patrol between every two barns from dusk to dawn.

When Haskell died in 1966, and then Iselin 10 years later, Monmouth Park pretty much lost its soul. Competition was closing in from all sides, from Philadelphia Park, off-track betting in New York, and simulcasting and casino gambling in New Jersey. Monmouth now had a fight on its hands, as Garden State Park owner Robert Brennan attempted to gain control of the track.

In September of 1985, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority took over control of Monmouth in an effort to prevent Brennan or anyone else from monopolizing racing in southern New Jersey. With Monmouth’s 1,500 shareholders receiving payments and owning a total of 776,000 shares of stock, it brought the sale to between $40 and $45 million. Brennan threatened to sue to stop the sale, but shortly thereafter agreed to drop litigation.

The Sports Authority brought in a young energetic and aggressive team led by New Jersey Racing Commission director and counsel Hal Handel, who teamed up with assistant general manager Lou Raffetto, a fixture at Monmouth since the early 1970s. Carol Hodes was brought down from Meadowlands to head the public relations department, Bob Kulina, who was born into racing, brought a new enthusiasm as racing secretary, and Jim Gagliano, who came up through the ranks, took over as special events coordinator, working closely with Handel and Raffetto.

To demonstrate the talent involved and the launch pad Monmouth became, Kulina went on to become president of Monmouth Park, a post he currently holds; Handel was named executive vice president and chief operating officer for the New York Racing Association; and Gagliano continued his rise by eventually being named president and chief operating officer of The Jockey Club.

Also in 1985, the Haskell Invitational Handicap, formerly the Monmouth Invitational, attracted Kentucky Derby winner Spend a Buck, who was upset by the Sonny Hine-trained Skip Trial. Spend a Buck bounced back to win the Iselin Handicap over older horses by a nose in track-record time of 1:46 4/5.

The following year, the Iselin Handicap attracted two of America’s leading horses, future Hall of Famers Lady’s Secret and Precisionist, and both were upset by Lady’ Secret’s stablemate Roo Art. The Haskell also saw an upset when Wise Times defeated Personal Flag, Danzig Connection, and Broad Brush at odds of 11-1.

Racing at Monmouth Park was alive and well again, with great promise for the future, especially as an alternative to Saratoga.

But those two meets merely were a preview of what was to come in 1987, the year Monmouth Park and the Haskell made their first major impact on American racing, catapulting the jewel of the Jersey Shore to new heights and establishing the track as one of the premier venues in the country.

First, racing’s one-man conglomerate, D. Wayne Lukas, opened a barn at Monmouth Park (run by assistant Kiaran McLaughlin) and raced his defending Horse of the Year Lady’s Secret there on three occasions. In one of those races, an allowance score, she became the leading female earner of all time, bringing even more attention to Monmouth. In his first year, Lukas’ stable earned over $1 million, which more than doubled the previous record. That same year, Angel Cordero Jr. came to Monmouth and rode the winners of both divisions of the Colleen Stakes, becoming only the fourth jockey in history to ride 6,000 winners, joining Johnny Longden, Bill Shoemaker, and Laffit Pincay Jr.

But it was that year’s Haskell Invitational that put Monmouth Park and the Haskell on the map, attracting Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba; the local hero, Belmont Stakes winner and Kentucky Derby and Preakness runner-up Bet Twice; and the rising star Lost Code, winner of seven consecutive races, including four Derbys and the grade I Arlington Classic.

And behind each horse was a story. At the upper end of the spectrum was Alysheba, the classically bred colt with a regal air about him, who brought $500,000 as a yearling. Still eligible for a non-winners of 2 after nine career starts, he was reborn following surgery to free an entrapped epiglottis. Alysheba was sheer artistry, his neck arched in regal splendor as he galloped along, his feet barely touching the ground. In the Kentucky Derby, he stumbled shortly after turning for home when Bet Twice drifted out in front of him, nearly unseating jockey Chris McCarron, who was amazed at the colt’s athleticism. Alysheba, somehow averting disaster, picked himself up and ran down Bet Twice, despite being interfered with a second time.

Bet Twice, who crushed the Belmont Stakes by 14 lengths, had shown such a disdain for training when he first came to Jimmy Croll’s barn that he had to be taken to the track with a buggy whip to get him to train. As he matured he began working five furlongs in :58 without raising a sweat. More of a nondescript-looking colt, he packed a lot of power, with a deep strong shoulder.

Bet Twice’s 3-year-old campaign was not without controversy. When the colt finished fifth as the 3-5 favorite in the Florida Derby, Croll said nothing, but later insisted, and did so until the day he died, that his horse was “gotten to,” and even theorized how it was done.

Finally, at the opposite end of the spectrum was the Bill Donovan-trained Lost Code, the $7,300 yearling whose meteoric rise brought the financially troubled Donovan family out of debt and into tax brackets they never dreamed of. The horse’s earnings of over $900,000 in 1987 alone was a far cry from the $70,198 earned by all of Donovan’s horses the year before. Lost Code accomplished this after bleeding so profusely after a race at Birmingham earlier in the year that the blood stains were still on the walls of his stall.

Lost Code held an amazing amount of flesh for a horse with so much racing under him, and his gallops were always strong and aggressive, with his open mouth and glaring eyes. The Donovans’ son Pat, who also was his father’s assistant and exercise rider, had his hands full trying to contain all that energy. After galloping Lost Code two miles on the Thursday before the Haskell, he said as he came off the track, “I can’t open my hands.”

The race received tremendous billing, as the entire racing world awaited the most anticipated three-horse battle since Damascus, Dr. Fager, and Buckpasser clashed in the 1967 Woordward Stakes. And in many ways, that race didn’t live up to its billing, as Damascus ran off from his rivals to win by 10 lengths.

A week before the race, most of the talk centered around Alysheba when Van Berg announced the colt would race without Lasix. Many believed that racing without Lasix contributed to his lackluster effort in the Belmont Stakes.

“Jack and I knew a month ago he wasn’t going to race with Lasix, but he didn’t want to tell anyone,” said Clarence Scharbauer, who co-owned Alysheba with his wife Dorothy.

Van Berg said, “I just got tired of listening to everybody. The horse gets beat two noses for second in the Belmont and all of a sudden he’s a drug addict.”

Alysheba also had developed a nasty case of fungal dermatitis that exploded all over the colt’s body and neck. By race day it was still visible, but vastly improved.

A crowd of 32,836 packed Monmouth, the largest since 1971, and wagered a record $4.4 million. Only two others showed up – Clever Secret, winner of the Lamplighter Handicap, and a New Jersey-bred sprinter named Born to Shop. The crowd, partial to the house horse, Bet Twice, sent him off as the 6-5 favorite, with Alysheba 3-2, and Lost Code 2-1.

Regardless of the outcome, Monmouth Park had hit the big-time, with the eyes of the racing world fixed on the Jersey Shore.

Lost Code, as expected went for the early lead, with Born to Shop along the rail, Bet Twice on the outside, and Alysheba caught between horses. Passing the stands, Chris McCarron had to check slightly on Alysheba and it looked as if it was going to be another eventful trip, as was the Belmont.

Going into the first turn, Lost Code held a clear lead, with Alysheba still stuck between horses. Born to Shop then played his only role in the race by bumping Alysheba out into Bet Twice, which precipitated a series of minor bumps that made Alysheba resemble a three-cushion billiard shot.

“Alysheba wasn’t where he likes to be,” said Bet Twice’s rider Craig Perret. “I think Chris was trying to outrun me a little and I didn’t want that to happen. Lost Code came out a bit and took the ground away from Alysheba. I was in a position to control the horses inside of me and I took it to my advantage.”

Lost Code continued to lead down the backstretch and around the far turn. After a solid half in :46 3/5, he turned it up a notch and went the next quarter in :23 flat to cover the six furlongs in a swift 1:09 3/5. Alysheba and Bet Twice closed in nearing the head of the stretch, with Perret still refusing to let Alysheba out. It was decision time for McCarron. Should he wait for an opening along the rail or let Bet Twice go and then swing to the outside, which would cost him ground and momentum.

“I knew pretty much between the five-sixteenths pole and the quarter pole I was going to have to go around,” McCarron said. “When I angled out, he went a lot further than I expected. He’s like a cat. It’s unbelievable how agile he is. He took off so fast, his body went one way and his feet went the other.”

Turning for home, Bet Twice stuck his head in front of Lost Code, who continued to battle back on the inside. Alysheba, who had lost valuable momentum, finally found his best stride and began closing the gap on Bet Twice and Lost Code, while well out toward the middle of the track.

Passing the eighth pole, the mile in a testing 1:34 flat, Bet Twice still clung to a head lead over a tenacious Lost Code, with Alysheba chopping into the lead with every stride. The race was everything everyone had hoped for, as the three horses battled to the wire -- Bet Twice hanging on gamely, Lost Code still trying to come back at him, and Alysheba relentless on the far outside.

At the finish, it was Bet Twice by a neck over Alysheba, with Lost Code another neck back in third. The final time of 1:47 flat equaled the stakes record and missed the track record by a fifth of a second.

All three horses had run their hearts out, which brought a flood of emotions from their connections. Bet Twice’s owner, Bob Levy, had tears in his eyes as he came into the winner’s circle, which was adorned with dozens of Bet Twice buttons worn by the colt’s multitude of shareholders.

“What a great ride by Craig,” Levy said, “I think this crop of 3-year-olds is as deep as any we’ve had in a long time.”

Jimmy Croll couldn’t help but pay tribute to Lost Code. “I really didn’t think he’d last as long as he did,” he said. “To be honest, I thought if we looked him in the eye he would back up, but he didn’t. I’m tickled to death for Bill Donovan.”

Van Berg was proud of Alysheba’s effort and sent out a warning to the press, “If anyone mentions Lasix I’m gonna hit him right in the nose. I’ll tell you one thing, this horse has one damn big heart. He had to go through an awful lot with that rash. I think his final eighth was the most impressive eighth he’s ever run.”

Bill Donovan, who few people had ever heard of prior to Lost Code, could barely contain his emotions. Lost Code had taken him and his family on the ride of their lives at a time when they desperately needed it.

“I’m so proud of my colt,” he said. “We have nothing to be ashamed of. We came and we found out that we fit with the very best. He gave it all he had.”

Back at Croll’s barn, groom Tony Cucinotti rubbed Bet Twice’s shoulders and said, “Look at him, no sweat at all. That’s what you call cooling out good.”

Cucinotti began rubbing Bet Twice as a 2-year-old after one of his horses was claimed and he happened to have an empty stall at the time.

A few moments later. Levy arrived with his wife Cissie, who could not keep her hands off Bet Twice. “I absolutely adore this animal,” she said. “It’s not just because he’s a winner. He’s a real character, a showman. You just get to love him. When they give you something out of their heart you know it.”

At Alysheba’s barn, Clarence Scharbauer said he was amazed at his colt’s constitution and announced he would definitely race as a 4-year-old and possibly even at 5. As we all know, Alysheba went on at 4 to become of the greatest horses of the modern era, and perhaps one of the most underrated horses of all time, considering what he accomplished at 3 and especially at 4.

A few stalls down, the Donovans were still beaming as if they had won. “I’m overwhelmed just to be a part of this,” said Pat Donovan. Soon, a loud whinny could be heard coming from Lost Code’s stall. Groom Gene Sanderson was bringing in the colt’s feed tub, in which Lost Code promptly buried his head.

“Hey, Bill, he really looks tired, doesn’t he?” Donna Donovan called to her husband. “This was such a thrill for us.” Donna told Bill, “We made $55,000 today,” and he replied, “Yeah, a few months ago we didn’t have 55 dollars.”

The Alysheba – Bet Twice rivalry would continue well into 1988. Van Berg and Croll both were convinced the two colts knew each other.

“When we were at Pimlico (in 1988 for the Pimlico Special), Alysheba was stabled on the backside of our barn,” Croll said prior to the Iselin Handicap, in which Alysheba would gain his revenge on Bet Twice at Monmouth Park. “Jack was walking him one morning, and when he saw Bet Twice they both started hollering at each other, and they didn’t do it to any other horse.”

Van Berg added, “They did it every morning. They just started nickering like the devil. No other horse in the barn did they holler at.”

Even Alysheba’s groom, John Cherry, was amazed. “I know it sounds kind of weird, but it sure looked like they recognized each other,” he said.

Because of Alysheba and Bet Twice, and Lost Code, the Haskell became a major summer stop for the nation’s best 3-year-olds, as the purse continued to grow, eventually reaching $1 million. The following year, Forty Niner and Seeking the Gold put on a battle for the ages in near 100-degree heat and there was no turning back.

The Haskell continued to gain in popularity. From 2001 to 2014, Bob Baffert won the Haskell an incredible seven times, and will try for number eight on Sunday with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in what will be the biggest Haskell of them all. During that time, Todd Pletcher won it three times, with Steve Asmussen and Bobby Frankel winning it once each. Asmussen, of course, won it with the great filly Rachel Alexandra, providing Monmouth with one of the greatest moments in the history of the track.

But no matter what happens on Sunday, no one will ever forget the 1987 Haskell. It was a day of camaraderie, emotion, and courage. It was a day when three special horses put on a show to remember. It was a day when the Haskell Invitational came of age, forever etched in the history books.

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