by Terry Conway
The Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park has evolved into one of the premier stakes races for 3-year-olds. Recent winners include Lookin At Lucky, Rachel Alexandra and Big Brown. Like many of its previous editions, the 45th renewal of the $1 million Haskell Invitational Stakes on Sunday could be a key event in the championship race. Here is a look back at the storied racetrack and the Haskell's most epic racing battle.
Rachel Alexandra Rolls in 2009 Haskell
Back in the late 1860s, New Jersey business and hotel proprietors were searching for a way to spark interest in the resort oceanside community of Long Branch. Their answer: horse racing at Monmouth Park.
A partnership group built the first Monmouth racetrack. On the Fourth of July, 1870, the Long Branch and Seashore Improvement Company lifted the curtain on the new Monmouth Park. President Ulysses S. Grant, an original box holder, was in attendance.
Grant took a cottage on Ocean Avenue in Long Branch to escape the summer heat and pressures of Washington. A Civil War hero and lifelong horseman, Grant was the first of seven American presidents who made the seaside town of Long Branch their summer retreat.
The opening of Monmouth Park was cause for regional celebration. Excursion ships carried what a newspaper described as "thousands" from Manhattan to Sandy Hook, after which they boarded trains for the track. With its elegant architecture and high-caliber racing, Monmouth was soon known as the "Newmarket of America," a reference to the famed racecourse in England.
Titans of industry, finance hotshots, famous actresses, writers and artists all flocked to Long Branch resorts, where they gambled in hotel casinos and danced in luxurious ballrooms. Celebrities such as Lillian Russell and Lily Langtry, Tammany Hall's "Big Tim" Sullivan as well as high profile gamblers Pittsburgh Phil and Diamond Jim Brady populated the racing crowd, just three miles from Long Branch casinos. So many well-heeled people turned up at the West End Court section of Ocean Avenue that it was dubbed "Little Wall Street."
However, by 1877 Monmouth Park was in default. A syndicate of New York tycoons — George and Pierre Lorillard, D.D. Withers, G.P. Wetmore and James Gordon Bennett — acquired the grounds. After four years of restoring the property and rebuilding the grandstand, the new Monmouth Park opened its gates in 1882. Three mansard pavilions rose above the steep French roof, all encased in variegated slates laid in a fantastic design. Monmouth was a sharp contrast to the rickety frame structures typically built on racecourses during that era. A new racecourse was built adjacent to it, and in the summer of 1890 the second Monmouth Park opened.
Sadly, Monmouth Park turned out to be a victim of its own success. Several fly-by-night rival tracks popped up in the region, and those tracks shed such a harsh light on racing that state officials grew suspicious of the entire industry. In 1891, barely a year after the grand Monmouth reopening, racing was shut down through an obscure law that viewed betting outlets and houses of prostitution under the same category. Monmouth was able to reopen for its 46-day meetings in 1892 and 1893, but anti-gambling legislation late in 1893 forced the track to close its doors forever.
Then in the April 3, 1897 edition of the Thoroughbred Record, the following was reported:
"The news will be received with regret that it has been definitely decided to put up the magnificent Monmouth Park race track at auction on April 22, 1897. Up to the last minute, the owners and mortgagees had hoped for a turn in the tide of public sentiment, but it is doubtful whether during the next ten years any favorable amendments to the existing laws in the State can be urged with any fair chance of success."
Racing would not return to the Jersey shores for half a century.
In 1939, Amory L. Haskell of Red Bank, N.J., led a successful effort to have pari-mutuel wagering legalized in New Jersey. A native of New York, Haskell graduated from Princeton and served in the Navy during World War I. Prior to taking over Monmouth Park's development, he had served as vice president of General Motors Corporation as well as president of a New York radio station.
Amory L. Haskell
Haskell organized a group of prominent New Jersey residents to build a modern Thoroughbred racetrack in Monmouth County at the site of the original track. Appointed president and chairman of Monmouth Park Jockey Club in 1945, he guided that organization through its opening in 1946 and continued at the helm until his death on April 12, 1966.
Monmouth Park directors honored his memory in 1968 with the Amory L. Haskell Handicap, a race for older horses. In 1981, the Haskell name was transferred to a 1 1/8-mile invitational stakes for the nation's top 3-year olds.
Today, it is the track's crown jewel and the 1987 edition is its gold standard — yet another in the famous duels between Bet Twice and Alysheba.
In the 1987 Kentucky Derby, Alysheba twice was blocked by a swerving Bet Twice in the stretch, even clipping the heels of the horse ahead of him near the three-sixteenths pole. After going to his knees and recovering, Alysheba got back in gear and went on to a three-quarter-length victory.
The colt beat Twice Bet again by a half-length in the Preakness, then Alysheba went after the Belmont, the Triple Crown and a $5-million payoff. The Belmont was a different story, and Bet Twice made sure there was no come-from-behind win, dominating the race by 14 lengths while Alysheba finished fourth, forced to race without the drug Lasix. Unlike Kentucky and Maryland, where Lasix was legal at that time, the drug was banned under New York racing law.
On August 3, the duo headed for a "Showdown at the Shore" in the Haskell.
While they battled through the Triple Crown grind, the speedy Lost Code was elsewhere bringing a winning streak of seven stakes to Monmouth. The three colts had three distinctively different running styles. Lost Code was all out from gate to wire. Most impressively, he could still put in a fast final quarter-mile at the end of a race that would repel most challengers. Bet Twice was a very tractable horse who could come from off the pace or lead if necessary. Alysheba typically tucked in behind the pacesetters and unleashed a sizzling three-eighths or quarter-mile charge to the finish.
"Alysheba was hard to handle sometimes, but the adrenaline would get flowing and he knew it was time to go," said trainer Jack Van Berg, at the time the world's winningest trainer. "He could do things you wouldn't believe."
Bet Twice's primary co-owner was Robert Levy, the longtime majority owner of Atlantic City Racetrack. His trainer was Jersey horseman Jimmy Croll, whose name and image adorned banners and plaques as well as racing photographs throughout the racing facility.
For Alysheba and Bet Twice, it was their first start in eight weeks. Hometown hero Bet Twice went off at 1.30-to-1, Alysheba 3-to-2 and Lost Code at 2-to-1. A crowd of 32,836 turned up on a hot, sticky afternoon.
When the starting gate slammed open, Lost Code shot to the lead, stalked closely by Bet Twice with Alysheba, as usual, biding his time. Turning for home, Craig Perret shook the reins and Bet Twice surged up to Lost Code. Unable to burst through on the rail, jockey Chris McCarron swung Alysheba wide, losing momentum and ground, and fell two lengths off the leaders.
At the eighth pole, Bet Twice stuck a head in front, but Lost Code kept battling. Thundering down the deep stretch in the middle of the track, Alysheba was now in full stride and closed rapidly. For an instant, Alysheba appeared to snatch the lead, but Bet Twice dug deep, summoning all his physical reserve. As the colts crossed the finish line, it was Bet Twice edging Alysheba by a neck, with Lost Code another neck behind.
Bet Twice equaled the stakes record time of 1:47, which was established by Majestic Light, the 1976 winner.
"My horse overreacted," Van Berg said. "He's like a cat, and is so light on his feet that it was easy for him to move as far out as he did, and that cost us even more ground."
Bill Donovan, Lost Code's trainer, estimated that Alysheba lost 1 1/2 to 2 lengths in being shifted to the outside. Donovan credited jockey Perret with deciding the race.
"Perret was dynamite, he gave that horse a masterful ride," Donovan said. "He rode as good a race as I've ever seen ridden. He kept my horse hemmed in, and that kept Alysheba from having a chance to get through on the rail."
The gallant warriors would face off in nine races with Alysheba, the 1988 Horse of the Year, the winner five times.
Aysheba Holds off Bet Twice in 1987 Kentucky Derby