Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Historic Monmouth Fights For Its Future
Oceanport, New Jersey--Oct. 24, 2007
When you think about it, there are plenty of similarities between Saratoga Race Course and Monmouth Park, site of Saturday�s Breeders� Cup World Championships.
They are both destination tracks, resort tracks, for one thing. They are hot dogs and cotton candy and warm summer breezes. They put on a world class show, even if provincial New Yorkers (guilty as charged) consider the $1 million Haskell a prep for the Travers.
When they�re open for business, the sense is that all is right with America again. They are beautiful parks where families can be entertained. Even the adults. And the high rollers, and the nouveau riche
, and the guys looking for a doll and the dolls looking for their guy.
But it was the local horseplayers who had the most fun. For them, it was nirvana.
Three and a half hours by car and two major highways separate Saratoga and Monmouth. But getting to their essence takes a lot longer than that. Nothing serious, just about a couple of hundred years each.
Both tracks go back to the 1800s, although it took New Yorkers to lead the way to both places. John Chamberlain, a New Yorker with cash who thought a boat ride from the New York harbor to the Jersey Shore might make for a pleasant day of sport.
Chamberlain was right, of course, and Monmouth opened on July 30, 1870. Makes you wonder if he knew William Travers?
At the turn of the 20th Century, Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell did not live by mountain air alone. They made it down to the shore, too, although I have no idea what they did for casino action back then. Gambling was not yet in vogue a hundred miles to the south. However, Atlantic City was a summer playground nonetheless.
But people in this area didn�t have to go to Saratoga to see good horses. Long before it was relegated to the status of a prep race, a time trial was staged 20 years later when a great horse of the day, Salvator, tried to run a mile faster than any horse ever had, and 40,000 people came out to see him try.
Don�t think any of those folks were on hand this past June 23rd when Gotcha Gold beat Saturday�s early line favorite for the Classic, Lawyer Ron, by a neck, in the Grade 3 Salvator Mile.
Way back in the day, Monmouth attracted presidents and celebrities and the infamous, from James Garfield and Grover Cleveland, to Lily Langtry, to Boss Tweed. A half century later, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bob Hope and Alfred Hitchcock and Joe Louis went racing at the Shore. The great theatrical agent and trustee Sonny Werblin, long before Johnny Carson and Joe Namath, saw to it that Monmouth was a place to see and be seen.
That might be the case again Saturday when the Breeders� Cup celebrates its 24th anniversary but there is another atmosphere here, too. Monmouth, and racing throughout the Garden State, is in dire need for something good to happen. Even the state acknowledges that, investing $30 million last year to see to it that their grand dame was up to Breeders� Cup code. Every track wants the Breeders Cup. Monmouth Park needs
the Breeders� Cup.
There�s a lot more riding on Saturday�s races than Eclipse Award titles. It could be the future of the entire $1.3 billion agribusiness in New Jersey and the accompanying green spaces and way of life. It is, after all, the Garden State.
Unlike Monmouth Park, the future of Saratoga Race Course is virtually assured, even if the thoroughbred franchise business in New York isn�t. But who knows? The enmity that exists between New York�s governor and its Senate Majority Leader is palpable, each capable of screwing things up.
New Jersey�s horsemen, both thoroughbred and harness, have been fighting a losing battle with their own state houses in pursuit of the sacred VLT cow. It�s not so much that they embrace the notion of needing one-finger bandits to bring people into their buildings; not at all.
The problem in New Jersey is apathy; the indifference that exists in the halls of government in Trenton and the distasteful idea that they need to climb into bed with Atlantic City�s casinos, swapping assurances not to pursue VLTs in favor of a handout from AC.
And don�t think for a minute the proud horsemen here don�t recoil at the notion. But you do what you have to do.
The Deity doesn�t appear to be on the horsemen�s side. The turf course is getting a good soaking as this is written. The main track was sealed following today�s last race. It will probably remain that way until Saturday. Weather handicappers are seldom wrong when they're touting the worst: Rain for the next three days.
Monmouth needs this Breeders� Cup, but Breeders� Cup doesn�t need Monmouth. They want to go global, taking their show across the pond possibly as soon as 2010. With the continued proliferation of synthetic surfaces here, the experience gained by American horsemen and their charges will make the transition back to the Old World easier. There has been racing on synthetic tracks in Europe for over a decade.
But even if Breeders� Cup remains exclusively the American event its founders designed it to be, it�s unlikely, fair weather or foul, Monmouth will ever see the event again. Or so Breeders� Cup honcho Greg Avioli was saying the other day. �We may be seeing the end of [the smaller venue] an era this year at Monmouth Park.
If that�s indeed the case, this provincial New Yorker will have to admit one thing. Saratoga never got a chance to host �racing�s greatest day.� Monmouth will, this Friday and Saturday. They could have been luckier.
Written by John Pricci
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Only In America
Eatontown, New Jersey, Oct. 23, 2007--
The shuttle left in a timely fashion for the post position draw for Breeders� Cup XXIV from the media hotel, headed for Monmouth Park. The Garden State prize race course will dance its first on this huge national stage.
And the people around here act as if they can�t wait.
Since we�re in Springsteen country, we took the backstreets through Long Branch, crossed over Route 36, and there we were, on the new, nearly unrecognizable backstretch. At least to me, anyhow. Every bit of 15 years since I�d been on the backside here.
It was a spiffy luxury coach that carried us, a little over the top considering at the time the 38-seater was carrying only myself and my new best friend, who writes a column for Queensland, Australia�s Country Life called �Down The Straight with Phillip Bate.�
As in �G�day mate.�
His column sounded so cool I considered changing to a pseudonym until I conjured up all the potential choices and figured I�d better play it safe.
In my new role as cheeky American, I presumed to tell him all he needed to know about Monmouth from the time we entered the backstretch gate to the front of a newly spruced up clubhouse, all of about a minute.
�Yeah, see all those satellite dishes and production trucks and tents,� I advised. �That�s the way it works. If a track wants to host the event, they get together with their Chamber of Commerce and make their pitch. The state came up with $30 million for track improvements for this one. If the Breeders� Cup say it�s a go, know one thing: It�s their show."
Phillip and I walked into the tent where the draw was to be held. Bacon and eggs first. Post positions complete the exacta. But the first thing you see were huge banners with reproductions of the horses that distinguished themselves in races run in New Jersey then went on to win the Breeders� Cup that same year.
The two-year-old filly champion of 1988; a Jersey-bred. And older female champion Lady�s Secret, a stakes winner at the Shore track that parlayed her win in the 1986 Distaff into a Horse of the Year title as well. And there were others, many others.
The start of the program was delayed almost an hour before all would learn the Breeders� Cup would have its first cross-entered horse, a rules violation.
But since Forefathers was entered in the Dirt Mile on Friday and the Sprint Saturday, it was determined it was permissible since the races were run on different days. Further, his participation in either event was not preventing another would-be entrant from starting in either race.
Actually, Forefathers could run in both. That�s been done before; a horse racing on back-to-back days. But never at this level. Racing in both would be an extreme longshot, of course. Fun to think about, nevertheless.
Meanwhile, Phillip was leaning over and telling me about his good fortune.
It was his first Breeders� Cup, a true international event. And how often, he wondered, do you get to make your debut and sit down at the same table to share coffee and conversation with none other than Lawyer Ron, the man, not the critter.
The critter, obviously, is the best older horse in training and was made the early line 5-2 favorite to win the Breeders� Cup Classic and title Horse of the Year 2007?
I didn�t have the heart to tell Phillip this doesn�t happen every day.
Lawyer Ron, the man , is managing the estate of his good friend, the owner/breeder of Lawyer Ron. Hines drowned in a pool accident at his home just before the horse ran in last year�s Risen Star Stakes while prepping for the Derby.
Ron Bamberger, Hines� lawyer and long time friend, is the animal�s namesake. Naturally, Bamberger and his wife, Gina, were very interested parties at yesterday�s draw.
�I�d like to see him draw outside [expected pacesetter] Hard Spun,� Bamberger was saying moments before the draw for the Classic. He winced only slightly when pill number 1 was pulled. �So much for [relaxing]. He�ll have to hold his position into the first turn.�
�We�re certainly hoping to have a better finish than we had last year,� added Gina Bamberger. Lawyer Ron finished ninth behind 2006 Horse of the Year Invasor.
Meanwhile the draw was running late, which was probably the reason Mike Tessitore rushed through the process, failing to give the declarations from the races first and never explaining the cross-entry of Forefathers until prodded by the audience. He got a little better as the program wore on, but only a little. Someone should have thought to coach him first.
�You guys are tough,� said a Breeders� Cup representative, assigned to make Bamberger feel at home during the breakfast draw. I explained that I felt compelled, as HRI�s head tweaker, to keep everyone honest. He didn�t seem impressed.
But Phillip Bate from Down The Straight was: �Imagine, you sit down at a table for your first Breeders� Cup and wind up sitting across from the owner of the early line favorite for the Classic and Horse of the Year.�
I didn�t have the heart to tell him: This sort of thing happens all the time over here.
Written by John Pricci
Monday, October 22, 2007
Meeting Across The River
Eatontown, New Jersey, Oct. 22, 2007--
Breeders� Cup Week is now. Finally, the wait is over and the hard work begins in earnest. You think 11 Kentucky Derbies is easy? You try it.
The sights and sounds and notes and stories and lies and information, dis- or otherwise, coming flying in at an intense rate of speed.
Let�s do some �first thing that comes to your mind� as we await the first real important event of the week, tomorrow�s draw for post positions. The draw begins at 11:15 a.m. at Monmouth Park. Ends whenever. But first thing�s first.
Still A Warrior:
There just had to be a reason Majestic Warrior ran so badly in the Champagne. It�s called a hoof wall separation. Bill Mott said it�s like a quarter crack, only in the toe instead of the heel. He�s in the Hall of Fame. He should know.
The good news is that he could run again this year, either in the 9-furlong Remsen at Aqueduct Thanksgiving weekend or the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. Either way, it will tell us a lot about his prospects for Kentucky Derby 2008.
First George Steinbrenner loses the Champagne and his Breeders� Cup Juvenile horse.
Then his baseball team lost the ALDS to the Indians.
Then Joe Torre (his call or otherwise).
Then Red Sox Nation did to the Indians in the ALCS what they did to the Yankees: Came back from the afterlife! That probably was the start of all this bad karma.
He's No Fool:
Idiot Proof provided the fireworks on July 4th when he re-wrote the Monmouth Park track record: six furlongs in 1:07 2/5. He breezed Sunday in 1:00 4/5, galloped out the Sprint distance in 1:14 4/5.
Trainer Clifford Sise, who�s run one horse in the Sprint; Paying Dues, second at 31-1 11 years ago, said the Monmouth track seemed �a little deeper, a little slower than summer.�
Good tip Mr. Sise, thank you.
Throw Deep Young Man:
Handicapping the Breeders� Cup, then BETTING on the Breeders� Cup, is not for the feint hearted. Average win mutual: $26. Average exacta: $230. Average Trifecta: $2,800.
On Any Given Sunday�
Any Given Saturday can work in 1:01 1/5 then jog the following day. �He likely bruised his foot then,� said Todd Pletcher, referring to his 10-length defeat to Street Sense in the Derby. Two starts later, he killed Hard Spun and Curlin on next Saturday�s racetrack, while Street Sense went to Saratoga instead.
I know what�s been written about the �98 Classic featuring a Classic winner, Derby winner and two Belmont winners, etc., etc. but, on paper, this running is the most competitive ever.
Poly Wants A Winner:
Curlin breezed an easy half-mile in :50 1/5 at Keeneland yesterday. Looked more like an open gallop!
No Slop Form, No Problem:
Rick Dutrow knows something we don�t. After working a strong five furlongs in :59 1/5, Dutrow said he�s �leaning to running in the Classic,� instead of the Dirt Mile, with Diamond Stripes.
�I see rain in the forecast and I�m not going to duck Curlin and Lawyer Ron for $5 million,� Dutrow said.
Well, I�m looking at the past performances and I don�t see a slop race on the page.
�I�m seeing nothing but good, and I�m just following his lead.�
Two For The Money:
In Saratoga, Larry Jones impressed us as a good old boy; great attitude and sense of humor, guileless, and isn�t impressed with himself. Easy to root for.
So he worked his two Breeders� Cup horses at Delaware yesterday. Juvenile filly Proud Spell had the dogs barkin� on the backstretch; a bullet five furlongs in :58 3/5. But it was hard-hitting, hard-campaigned Hard Spun, of which he said, after breezing five-eighths in 1:00 1/5: �He�s training better now than he ever has.�
Oh, Part II.
Just Happy To Be Here:
Tiago and trainer John Sherriffs seem to like the Garden State. Tiago had veteran exercise rider Frankie Herrarte doing his best Lone Ranger act this morning. As the colt was about to gallop at Monmouth Park Monday morning, he reared up and made a half spin as Herrarte hung on. No harm, no foul.
�He just spooked a little,� explained Sherriffs, "it was all right, though.� Then, �this is a terrific field,� he said of the Classic, �and we're glad to be a part if it. It�s a real treat to be here and stabled with Carl [Nafzger]. I have the greatest respect for him.�
"Now Look Who's Talking"
Don�t look now but an 8-year-old gelding is giving a pretty good impression of a 2-year-old. After Better Talk Now breezed six furlong in 1:13 at the Fair Hill training center, trainer Graham Motion was talking about his horse�s recent forced freshening.
�The layoff benefits him," Motion, not known for blowing smoke, said. �It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I�ve never seen him better than he is right now.� Saturday will be the gelding's fourth straight appearance in the Turf. He upset the field at Lone Star three years ago.
Hitting A Higher Note:
Todd Pletcher warns that the three-year-old filly he trains, Octave, should not be overlooked in an extremely deep Distaff that could feature as many as 11 Grade 1 winners. �Her race in Philadelphia (Cotillion) is better than it looks on paper. The track was speed favoring and we let the other filly get away.�
He's No Michael Vick:
Bobby Frankel will not be at Monmouth Park to saddle Ginger Punch in the Distaff. �I�m staying home with my dog Happy who I�ve had for eight years and is very ill. I have lots of good help at Belmont Park and elsewhere, and they�ll saddle her.� Frankel lives in Malibu. That won�t make him rest any easier, as forest fires continue to rage as this is written.
�This Is Ames, Mister�:
Arc winner Dylan Thomas and the rest of the foreign contingent arrive Tuesday in Newark. Here�s how it works for the Euros. Bloods will be drawn and sent to a testing facility in Ames, Iowa, while the horses get shipped to Monmouth Park and are bedded down in the quarantine barn. When and if the tests come back clean, the horses clear quarantine and will get their first feel of the track/course Thursday morning.
(In case you guess what movies those two quotes are from, and what album the headline is from, no prizes will be awarded).
Written by John Pricci