Nestled in the heart of the Jersey Shore, Monmouth Park is one of America’s most historic racetracks. Founded in 1870, the facility maintains the quaint fair-like feeling of a bygone era while still being thoroughly modern: the site has even been the host of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships (AKA the Super Bowl of horse racing.)
This Sunday is the 47th running of the Haskell Invitational, which is a top summertime race for 3-year-olds. Fans are guaranteed to see horses that ran in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in the Haskell, and this year’s edition is notable because it’s attracted not only the top sophomore males in the nation but an outstanding filly, as well: Untapable, dominant winner in both the Kentucky Oaks (the Derby’s sister race) in early May and the Mother Goose Stakes in late June.
Needless to say, this year’s edition of the War at the Shore (The Haskell’s rather awesome nickname amongst the racing crowd) was shaping up to be one hell of a horse race, and Thursday marked the post position draw for the big race. That’s when the horses running in the Haskell are assigned their number in the race and morning line odds (i.e. the track’s best guess as to what the horses’ betting odds will be on raceday.) There was no way I was going to miss this event, so I set my alarm a little early to be sure that I could catch the New Jersey Transit train from Penn Station to Long Branch to be there in plenty of time for the event.
The train is, in my humble opinion, the best way to get to Monmouth Park; on racedays, there’s even a stop dedicated to the track, but today (when there’s no horses running at the park) I was able to secure a round-trip ticket to nearby Long Branch, NJ for a very reasonable $30. The great thing about the train ride to Monmouth is that it’s so beautiful. (Well, once you clear the confines of New York and its surrounding suburbs, that is.) Once you’re clear of the urban sprawl, the train meanders through a beautiful landscape punctuated by bays, marshes and inlets. It’s a wonderful way to make a journey, and I recommend it to anyone who lives in the New York City area that wants to make their way to Monmouth Park.
Once I arrived at the track, I headed to the Garden Room, a lovely upscale dining area within Monmouth Park that would serve as the site of the Haskell Invitational post position draw.
The room itself is beautiful, and it was filled with members of the sporting press as well as various owners and trainers of the horses that would be participating in Sunday’s race.
The room was set up for the Haskell draw, and each seat was provided with a media packet, a draw sheet (which allows you to fill in horses’ post postitions and odds) and my very favorite thing: this year’s Haskell hat!
Obviously, I had to try it on immediately.*
*Full disclosure: I am still wearing this hat as I write this diary on the train ride home. It’s freaking awesome.
I also helped myself to a cup or three of Monmouth’s very good coffee. I have to say, there’s something special about drinking coffee out of anything but a to-go cup. As I said on Twitter:
Seriously, to quote Iggy Azalea: I’m so fancy.
I also caught sight of the fabulous Haskell Invitational trophy. It’s absolutely stunning in person, and I want one when I grow up.
Before I knew it, it was time for the draw. They move pretty quickly at Monmouth Park (both the horses and humans, that is!) so the post positions were decided almost as quickly as I could pencil them in. By the time all was sorted, the filly Untapable, who will be #7 in the Haskell Invitational, was made the morning line favorite at 2-1. But she has a very tough challenge in the Haskell as the eight boys lined up to face her are serious racehorses.
One of my favorite moments of the afternoon came when I ran into trainer Dale Romans, whose Medal Count will be #9 in the Haskell. After exchanging pleasantries, I asked him how the big horse was doing. Without batting an eye, Romans casually said, “Oh, he’s going to win” before heading up to the podium to talk about the Haskell with master of ceremonies Travis Stone. OK then: you heard it here first, people! Straight from the horse’s (or at least horse trainer’s) mouth.
Within moments of taking the stage, Romans had the press corps and his fellow horsemen in gales of laughter, relating stories of bygone Haskells that he’s barely lost and recounting moments of trying to get to Monmouth’s “lucky hot dog stand” before his fellow trainer – and frequent Haskell winner – Bob Baffert. Romans said that Bob wouldn’t be at Monmouth for this year’s edition of the Haskell, so as long as Romans got a hot dog he’s sure to win. At that point, Jose Garoffalo (trainer of #8 Wildcat Red) threatened to get to the magical hot dog stand first and scarf down two franks before Romans got a chance to have even one.
TL;DR: The Haskell Invitational Draw is one seriously entertaining press conference!
It’s also a seriously yummy press conference – after trainers, owners and jockeys had talked about their contenders, attendees of the draw were treated to a sumptuous buffet that included roasted vegetables, crab cakes, beef and so much more. Oh! And salad. Which I totally ate. I say this because I know my mom reads my blogs. (Hi, mum! I’m eating vegetables sometimes, I swear!)
And with that, I had to make a run for my train and sadly abandon Monmouth Park until Sunday’s Haskell Invitational. So you know, gates will open at 10 AM and the first race will run at noon. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope to see you at the War at the Shore! If you can’t make it, be sure to tune in on NBC Sports Network starting at 5 p.m. ET. Let me know in the comments who you’re rooting for!