Racing fans talk about why they enjoy coming to Monmouth Park in New Jersey for a fun day of racing, highlighted by the Haskell Invitational.
Monmouth Park on Haskell Invitational Stakes day is one of the most spirited environments in American racing, and my lone trip to the Haskell was a memorable one.
In order to fully appreciate my enjoyment of that 2007 trip to Monmouth, however, it is useful to understand the origins of my low expectations for coastal New Jersey that were born of a previous excursion into the Garden State some three years earlier.
Prior to attending the Haskell, my only significant experience in New Jersey had come via an ill-advised detour to Atlantic City on the way from Belmont Park to Washington, D.C., after three friends and I watched Smarty Jones and Stewart Elliott lose the 2004 Belmont Stakes.
Following the distressing defeat (and three hours in the Belmont parking lot waiting for traffic to thin out while convivially sharing our disappointment with other tailgating racegoers) we decided that a jaunt to the Jersey Shore would be just the cure for our Triple Crown blues.
Upon arrival at whichever unmemorable casino’s lights proved to be the most attractive at the moment (and after a much longer drive than any of us had quite anticipated), one of us decided that because it had a funny sounding name, the Harvey Wallbanger would be the cocktail of choice for the evening. Passing the Wallbangers around, our compatriot explained to his befuddled party that (despite the fact that he had never before tasted one and despite the fact that the beverage was actually invented in California) this was just the sort of drink that should be consumed in Atlantic City.
We weren’t the only ones who had never tasted a Harvey Wallbanger: no bartender in the casino had ever heard of the concoction, so each subsequent round was unique in terms of appearance and taste. After a couple of hours of unprofitable gambling and even less-profitable Wallbanger drinking, we decided to call it a night.
Our designated driver retrieved our car, and we unsuccessfully sought the shortest route out of town. By the time we wound our way out of a maze that included the eight city blocks that must have contained more extra-legal commercial activity than anywhere in the world, we realized that we were all too tired to complete the trip to D.C. and needed to find a motel. In an era just prior to GPS ubiquity, we were navigating by intuition.
A few miles down a New Jersey state highway that we suspected was taking us vaguely toward Washington, we spotted a flickering neon sign reading “OTEL” in the distance. We eased the car down a pothole-ridden, unlit industrial access road toward the sign, where we discovered the precise meaning of the term “flea bag.”
Our lodgings were within view of an out-of-commission municipal airport and some nondescript warehouses, but otherwise we seemed to be miles from any trace of civilization. The scene is unfortunately stored in my mind and is automatically retrieved whenever a news story mentions a motel as the site of a prostitution-related scandal or a drug deal gone wrong. Although the room was cheap, we received the full experience, including a pre-dawn terror-inducing bang on the door from a female-sounding person seeking goods and offering services.
We escaped the next morning no worse for wear, and we celebrated with breakfast at a diner, where, after some extensive research, a waitress ascertained the actual recipe for a Harvey Wallbanger – vodka, orange juice, and a Tuscan liqueur. She was confused when we had to explain that our inquiry was merely rhetorical and that we had no intention of ever looking at one again.
So, with that memorable night as my benchmark, my expectations were low for my trip to the Haskell. By any measure, however, my experience at Monmouth was outstanding. I drove up from Kentucky with my father, a relatively uneventful car trip compared with the Atlantic City venture. I happened to be reading Richard Ford’s Independence Day, a wonderful novel set in New Jersey, and I enjoyed the trip and the book all the more in light of the fact that my father-son journey did not include any of the Cat’s-in-the-Cradle strife experienced by the book’s main character, a sportswriter-turned-real-estate-agent who travels with his son to the baseball and basketball halls of fame. Dad and I stayed at a reputable motel chain a few miles from the track, a welcome departure from my previous Jersey accommodations.
The next morning we bought Daily Racing Forms at a nearby convenience store, engaged in pleasant racing-related banter with the proprietor, and headed to the track. The traffic was just heavy enough to trigger anticipation for a day at the races.
We had lunch in the clubhouse, which evoked the romance of racing in a bygone era without feeling stodgy or staid. In the box area, it felt as if a roaring 1920s party had broken out at a 1950s country club.
Around the expansive Monmouth Park grounds, there were thousands of enthusiastic race fans of all ages enjoying the warm weather and festive atmosphere, many of whom, according to their T-shirts, were participating in family gatherings and class reunions.
EXPERIENCE MONMOUTH PARK
The Haskell field included a trio of top-notch runners from a 3-year-old crop that was proving to be one of the best in recent memory. With a win in the Preakness and a narrow defeat in the Belmont, Curlin seemed to have the making of a historically great racehorse. Hard-trying Hard Spun had finished second, third, and fourth in the Triple Crown races. The million-dollar yearling Any Given Saturday had disappointed in the Kentucky Derby, but a win in the Dwyer Stakes indicated that he was a horse on the upswing.
I was cheering for the gritty Hard Spun but also harbored hope that Curlin might demonstrate that he was special horse.
I was disappointed on both fronts as Any Given Saturday proved to be the best horse that day, drawing away from a game Hard Spun and a dull Curlin to win by 4 ½ lengths. But I was consoled by a winning trifecta ticket and the satisfaction of having witnessed – in good company and fine weather – an impressive victory by a solid racehorse.
The Haskell is one of the truly special environments in American racing, and one that every racing fan should experience. And if a day of top-notch racing doesn’t completely quench your thirst for a New Jersey experience, there’s always a Wallbanger waiting for you at the casino.
HASKELL SCENE CIRCA 2012
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire