All photos courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
I strolled in to Monmouth Park on Sunday right as the first race was starting. I had driven down from New York City, taking a break from a cross-city move, to see the Haskell Invitational Stakes. The race promised to be a great one, pitting some of the top 3-year-olds against each other leading into this year’s Travers Stakes; and the card featured plenty of stakes races. A fantastic betting opportunity to be sure.
Unfortunately, I had just cleaned out my bank account to pay an insane New York City broker’s fee on a new apartment. I had $100 in my pocket. I was not loaded for bear. I needed to hit quickly.
The weather was cooperating. It wasn’t sweltering hot as it had been the last two weeks, and the rain that was forecast was holding off for the time being. And Monmouth Park, “the Shore’s Greatest Stretch,” was open enough to feel the ocean breeze from the nearby Jersey Shore no matter where you were. Even indoors they kept the enormous windows at the back of the grandstands overlooking the paddock wide open so you could feel like you were outside.
I took up roost at the Lady’s Secret cafe near the paddock, one of the track’s charming watering holes. It was outdoors, the bar was lively, and it was an easy sprint to the betting windows and to the finish line to see the horses come home.
Monmouth Park feels a lot like Del Mar in this respect. It’s a little older, a little more run down, but in some way that’s its whole charm. There’s old that feels old, then there’s old that feels vintage. Monmouth is less like your grandfather who constantly complains about his stones in between huffs on his oxygen tank and more like your grandfather who tells you stories about seeing Joe DiMaggio from right behind the dugout.
Monmouth Park has stories to tell for sure. Like how Ulysses Grant (not the general or the vice president, but the sitting president of the United States) attended opening day and held box seats. A sitting president with box seats at the track! Imagine!
Sunday, the park was more likely to welcome a president of a Jersey IBEW local than a president of the U.S., but that didn’t mean it was any less of a draw. These days, the Haskell brings in around 40,000 visitors to the track. When Grant was playing the ponies, the grandstand held only 10,000 people and that was the biggest grandstand in America at the time.
For my part, I didn’t score anything the next two races. I was trying to play Saratoga Race Course and Monmouth at the same time, which was a recipe for distraction, confusion, and a quicker disappearance of my bankroll. I slowed down and focused on the fourth race at Monmouth, a state-bred allowance for fillies. Yes, they breed horses in New Jersey, believe it or not. And they even breed enough to field 12 fillies in a $62,500 allowance race. I tweeted something snarky about the key to N.J. bred races being to bet any horse who can run a Beyer Speed Figure of 50. Then I looked over the form and did what I always do in state bred races - I looked to see who was coming out of an open-company race. There were three. But one of them, Double Desert, had won in a better time than most of these other horses had won in at the same distance. Not only that, she lost to horses that had run really great races, better races than many of her competitors had won. I decided I liked her the best then looked at the tote board.
I wiped off my glasses and put them back on like a cartoon character who can’t believe his eyes. Is it true?
I had just finished telling the man sitting next to me that I had been chatting with that whenever the horse I like turns out to be seriously underbet, I liked to wheel it on top of the field, something I had written about here before. I nudged him and said, “here we go!” He laughed and said, “I was thinking about betting that horse for the name: Double Dessert. Who doesn’t love double dessert!” I pointed out that the word was desert, not dessert. He frowned and said “never mind then.”
I wheeled Double Desert on top of the field and sure as shootin’, she come. I watched from the box seats in the clubhouse and was probably the only person in the crowd cheering her home and then dancing around after she won. Then I saw the horse that came in second was 11-1. I stopped dancing and started shaking. “This is going to be big.”
HIGH FIVES ALL AROUND
When I tallied up all my bets on Double Desert and my exacta, I was almost a grand to the good. I bounded up to the window to cash my tickets. I even found the same cashier so I could give him a big tip. He said “congrats” and put the exacta ticket through the machine.
“Looks like you got an IRS ticket.”
An IRS ticket is any ticket that pays off over 300-1. You have to fill out a form and you get taxed on the winnings at a rate of about 25% when the tax man comes in April. I nodded proudly.
“Do you have your social security card?”
Of course I don’t have my social security card. Who carries around their social security card?
Everyone at Monmouth, it turns out. The rule at the track now is that you can’t cash out an IRS ticket without showing your physical card. I sheepishly confessed to the teller that I don’t win a lot of IRS tickets these days. He says to me “just go find a 10-percenter.”
I knew all about ten-percenters. What my grandfather didn’t earn from selling Daily Racing Forms and touting horses, he made from cashing winners for professional gamblers. He’d sign their IRS forms and they’d kick him ten percent of the winnings. When the tax man came, he just pulled out his pockets and showed the man how broke he was. He rarely paid any taxes in his later years at all.
Meanwhile, the horseplayers were able to cheat the government out of their huge cut.
Many years later, I paid a friend a hundred bucks to cash a four-figure ticket for me, convincing him that since he was on food stamps and filed well below the poverty line, there was no way the extra income would bump him up into a bracket that he’d have to pay anything. Many months later he called me to tell me how wrong I was, and I overnighted him a check for the difference.
“Where am I going to find someone to do that?” I asked the cashier.
“Hell, ask anyone! This is New Jersey. Everyone’s flat busted.”
EVEN THIS STUFFED MONKEY HAD HIS SOCIAL SECURITY CARD
(okay, maybe that's a tipsheet)
I put it in my pocket and figured I’d just come back to the shore another weekend to cash it. Besides, if I cashed it then, I’d probably just start gambling higher and lose it all back. And I still had quite a bit of winnings from my extra win, place and show bets on Double Desert.
By the tenth race, it was all gone. I had been playing like a moron. I tried to beat Joyful Victory, one of the finest mares in the country, in the Molly Pitcher Stakes. She blew the doors of them so bad the crowd gave her an ovation. Despite tearing up my ticket, I gladly joined them in congratulating her.
JOYFUL VICTORY ROLLED IN THE MOLLY PITCHER
Then in the very next race, I got beat by a disqualification when the horse I bet, Nathan Ridge, won the race after a nervous Victor Santiago drifted him right in front of the charging Timeless Indy in the stretch. Watching the replay the foul was clear to me. And I had plenty of money on the race. But all around me were guys that were watching the very same replay and shouting with all the conviction of a Baptist minister, “SHOULD NOT COME DOWN! NO WAY!” Hope is the denial of reality, boys.
The tenth race was an important race because it was the start of the late pick four. It was supposed to be my big bet of the day. I was left without enough money to play the ticket the way I wanted. I had no choice. I had to find me a ten-percenter.
Chatting up another punter at the Lady’s Secret about my rotten luck, he asks me with a grin, “you don’t have a social security card on you?”
Of course not, I respond.
“I do. I’ll cash your ticket for you.”
“You’d do that for me?”
I started doing the math in my head.
Monmouth Park, for its first 20 years of existence in the late 1800s, was one of the finest racetracks in America, host to statesmen and titans of industry.
By the early 1890s, however, attitudes about gambling started to shift in New Jersey. Arguing that purses had become too large and had attracted the wrong sort of people to the racing business, the New York Times ran an op-ed arguing in favor of banning gambling in New Jersey for the good of the sport:
The one thing that attracts most attention at the Monmouth Park races is the number of disreputable persons who are permitted to enter the gates. Men and women of no character are freely admitted to the grounds. They pre-empt the best seats in the grand stand. No respectable man or woman can go to this home of the gamblers without coming in contact with these persons.
By 1893, lawmakers in New Jersey had successfully shut down Monmouth Park.
Monmouth stayed shuttered for nearly half a century until, in 1946, it was saved.
The savior of Monmouth Park was a successful New Jersey businessman named Amory Haskell. He led a successful campaign to legalize pari-mutuel betting and then put up the money to rebuild Monmouth Park.
The Haskell Invitational, the marquee event at Monmouth Park and the race we had all come to the track that Sunday to see, was named in his honor.
This year they are calling the race the “War at the Shore.” It was catchy, and was perhaps unintentionally fitting. During the many years that Monmouth was closed, the U.S. Army leased it to train troops heading out to fight in World War I. Because Haskell rebuilt Monmouth in a different location, the old Monmouth remained the main post of Fort Monmouth until 2011.
That honor belonged to a horse with local connections, Verrazano. He was on a tear before the Kentucky Derby, where he finally ran a bad race. This would be the horse’s first race since the Derby, and the home team still believed in him.
I couldn’t believe that anyone would let Oxbow, the winner of the Preakness and the Belmont runner-up, go off at 3-1 odds. In the slowest finishing time of any Haskell since 1978, Verrazano rewarded his East Coast supporters with a record-breaking margin of victory over the accomplished field: 9 ¾ lengths.
The crowd gave their second standing ovation of the day. I joined them. What did I care? I hadn’t even bet.