The Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park is one of those events that I think everyone should make a point of experiencing at least once in their life. The track itself is completely beautiful, with towering shade trees swaying in the ocean breeze wafting in from the nearby shore. Plus, there are so many talented horses, jockeys and trainers competing on Haskell Day that it’s pretty much impossible to not get caught up in the excitement.
I arrived at the track at about 10:00 AM after an incredibly easy drive down the Garden State Parkway from New York City. I wasn’t alone, either: as my 36,000+ fellow fans arrived, they were treated to free commemorative Haskell hats for every paid admission. As I mentioned in my last blog, they’re very sharp looking and I can’t wait to sport mine as I skip around to different racetracks this year!
If we were still in the mood for another souvenir, no problem! For only $8.50, people could score this fantastic Haskell glass, which also contained a yummy signature drink called the Summer Wind.
As fans settled in for their day at the races, the first order of business was getting the day’s bets lined up. People pored over their programs in the time between gates opening and the first race.
People also got busy setting up their picnics; the Bring Your Own area of the track, which has about a bajillion picnic tables ready for fans, were packed with folks who brought everything from beer and hot dogs to Champagne and tea sandwiches.
And people also came out to show off some fantastic Shore style – there were so many great dresses and hats there!
Of course, the crowd had come to watch some top-notch horse racing, and what a crowd it was! People were everywhere, with fans enjoying perfect temperatures and a cloud cover that kept the summer sun at bay. From the end of the picnic area to the top of the Clubhouse, people turned out in droves to watch the War at the Shore.
After I had finished wandering around and taking in the sights of Haskell Day, I headed over to the paddock to check out what we were all here to see: some top-class horses. The paddock, which is the area where horses are saddled before the races, is really cool at Monmouth. It’s a picturesque enclosure that offers fans an incredible view of the human and equine athletes as they prepare to go head-to-head at forty miles per hour.
In celebration of the Haskell, notable equine artist Peter Williams was there to paint the bucolic setting.
Peter even let me hold one of his paintbrushes for a photo (which sadly was taken by a stranger so I don’t have it - doom!) Thankfully, I didn’t put it anywhere near that incredible canvas, because whenever I try to draw anything it looks like a horse-crazy toddler was left unsupervised with crayons. I’m really good at art appreciation; art production? Well, my version of a Haskell landscape would look something like this:
Yep. Like I said: art is not really in my wheelhouse. But I do understand why one would want to capture the beauty of the Monmouth paddock. With its stunning horses, incredible landscaping and stylish attendees, it’s the perfect place to get inspired.
So! Off to the races. The first major stakes race of the afternoon was the Matchmaker, a competition for fillies and mares (AKA female horses) three years old and upwards. There were plenty of talented runners in the race, but in the end girl power prevailed when Starstruck got the win with jockey Rosie Napravnik aboard.
Rosie was all smiles when she headed back to the Winner’s Circle – she’s a jockey who clearly loves her job!
Up next was the Molly Pitcher Stakes. This is another race for the ladies, and I had my eye on one in particular: Joyful Victory. She’s an absolutely stunningly beautiful horse – everyone in the paddock was talking about what a presence she has. Clearly, she knows it, too: she was giving me quite a sassy look when I took her photo!
Well, as it turns out she had every reason to look proud of herself – she won the Molly Pitcher with daylight between her and her closest runner-up. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was cheering right along with the crowd.
Rosie Napravnik was aboard for this win, too, and she made sure to give Joyful Victory a big pat on the neck before going into the Winner’s Circle.
That’s the cool thing about Rosie: she’s truly a horsewoman at heart. She even has an off-the-track Thoroughbred of her own that she rides on her days off! In other words, she rules.
The next big race was the Monmouth Cup. Here’s the race’s namesake; it’s shiny and I want one someday.
The Monmouth Cup is a race for three-year-olds and upward, and a very talented field was set to duke out the 1 1/16 mile distance. While the race was tarnished as favorite Take Charge Indy was pulled up (but thanks to the fast actions of jockey Gary Stevens and the Monmouth vet crew, he’s going to be living a long and happy life as a stallion in Kentucky at WinStar Farm), Pants on Fire still put in an impressive performance, winning the race with ease.
The last major race before the Haskell was the Oceanport Stakes, named for the town in which Monmouth Park is located. The 1 1/16 mile grass test attracted ten starters, but it was Silver Max who prevailed.
Finally, it was time for the Haskell! Fans crowded around the paddock to watch the horses arrive.
As the Haskell contenders paraded around, it was hard to pick a favorite; but Verrazano was mesmerizing – he’s a very big, very athletic horse. I was saying to a colleague that he really doesn’t look like a 3-year-old; he’s physically just really mature.
Of course, there wasn’t a bad-looking horse in the group; these animals are at the top of their game physically, and the care that their grooms and trainers give them shows in the gleam of their coats and the bounce in their steps.
Finally, it was time for the horses to go to the track to warm up. As they left the paddock, Bruce Springseen’s “Born To Run” blasted over the loudspeakers, which is a perfect and awesome selection for the biggest horse race in New Jersey.
The crowds surged to the rail to get a good viewing position, and it was moving to see so many people show up to support such a quintessential Garden State sporting event in the first summer after Superstorm Sandy. As the sign below shows, residents of New Jersey are staying strong, and it was great to see so many fans out for the War at the Shore.
The roar of the crowd was deafening as the horses left the Haskell starting gate and charged down the stretch for the first time; my friend Anne even turned to me and said that it gave her goosebumps.
In the end, Verrazano proved to be much the best in the race, winning the whole thing with a record 9 ¾ lengths between him and runner-up Power Broker.
As we waited for Verrazano to return to the Winner’s Circle, I was lucky enough to get a photo of the team behind the horse: his grooms, hotwalkers and other caretakers who do so much for these animals behind the scenes. These men and women truly are the unsung heroes of the track, and the joy and pride on their faces tells the whole story of how much they love Verrazano.
Of course, everyone wanted to celebrate! Here’s trainer Todd Pletcher getting a congratulatory hug from Verrazano’s co-owner Bryan Sullivan:
Incidentally, you know what’s awesome? The fact that Let’s Go Stable (the name of the group that owns Verrazano) showed their gratitude to the state of New Jersey after their Haskell win. Check out this tweet from the Daily Racing Form’s Dave Grening:
That’s pretty awesome – just like Haskell Day at Monmouth Park is. Seriously, I wasn’t kidding: if you get the chance, please try to make it to this event. You will be so very glad that you did.
That’s it for now - thanks for stopping by, and I’ll be back next weekend with lots more behind-the-scenes action from Saratoga and the Whitney Invitational.