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.