I absolutely love going to Monmouth Park for the Haskell. Located in the heart of the Jersey Shore, Monmouth Park is less the MTV version of the famed mid-Atlantic beaches and much more the heart and soul of the Garden State. The crowd that comes to the Haskell is New Jersey-proud to its core, and the fans at the track are there to have a great time while witnessing some of the nation’s top horse racing action at a stunning venue.
When I arrived at Monmouth Park on Sunday morning at about 9:30, there were already droves of people lined up waiting to get into the track despite a light rain falling from the sky. The Haskell is serious business for fans at the Shore’s Greatest Stretch, and as soon as the gates opened at 10 a.m. people sprinted to secure their favorite seats for their day at the races.
Waiting for fans just inside the main gate was a phenomenal sand sculpture commemorating this year’s Haskell Invitational. I immediately realized upon seeing it that I have a new life goal: I must, at some point, have a sand sculpture made for me. They’re so cool! The details of the one at Monmouth Park were on point, including horses and ocean scenes, and people happily posed in front of the sculpture to get a photo of its greatness.
One of my favorite places at Monmouth Park (on Haskell Day or any other time) is the backyard area. This place has everything (OK, now I feel like Stefon) from free picnic tables to concessions to reservable areas for large parties complete with barbecues and BYOB. In fact, everyone who comes to Monmouth Park is welcome to bring their own food and beverages to designated areas od the track (excluding hard alcohol) so it’s an amazing affordable afternoon for those in attendance.
But the picnic area is just one of so many great places to see the racing action up close at Monmouth Park; fans also have an amazing view of the paddock where horses parade before each race, and they were treated to a great scene all day as the sun emerged and Thoroughbreds and their human connections basked in the beautiful Jersey Shore afternoon.
I also found this young woman who’s a huge horse racing fan and a self-taught student of Thoroughbreds’ lineage. She was at Monmouth to support the filly Untapable in the Haskell, and I absolutely loved her homemade poster! I had a really nice chat with her, and I think we’ll be seeing her for a long time to come at racetracks nationwide.
I loved seeing Monmouth Park’s signature lawn jockey, located adjacent to the Winner’s Circle, painted white in anticipation of wearing the 2014 Haskell Invitational winner’s silks for the next year. It was a great reminder of the significance of this race, whose winner would receive the lion’s share of the $1 million purse as well as a free ticket to the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic in Los Angeles on November 1.
As the afternoon’s major races began, the crowd really filled out and people were lined up on the apron (the area of the track right next to the dirt course) to get the best view of the high-end contests of the day.
The first major contest of Haskell Day was the Molly Pitcher Stakes, a race for female horses (called fillies for the under 5-year-old set and mares for those horses five years old and up) of three years of age and greater. There were nine horses and jockeys going postward to compete for a $200,000 purse and a trophy that was, appropriately enough, a gorgeous cut-crystal pitcher.
Majestic River was the clear and easy winner of the race, and as she returned to the winner’s circle jockey Rosie Napravnik was full of praise for the 4-year-old daughter of AP Indy.
The next major stakes race was the WinStar Matchmaker for fillies and mares three years old and up running on the grass; not only would the victor take home the bulk of the $150,000 prize money, but the chance to breed to one of the stallions WinStar Farm’s remarkable lineup of stallions. Starstruck won the race for the second year in a row – something tells me that with this prize she’ll become as wonderful a mother as she is a racehorse!
Up next was the Monmouth Cup; this race is one for the boys, aged three years and up, going a mile and a sixteenth on the dirt. It was Valid’s day, and the 4-year-old colt rallied to victory under a canny ride from jockey Orlando Bocachica.
Orlando Bocachica was clearly thrilled with his win (as was I – I absolutely love Orlando’s name, and I think I annoyed my fellow photographers for the rest of the afternoon by repeating it loudly all day from his win on. Orlando Bocachica!)
There was one more race before the Haskell Invitational: the Metropolitan Jets Oceanport Stakes. This mile-and-one-eighth grass test for horses three years old and up had attracted a very strong field, and I was eager to see who would emerge the winner as the horses swept past the Monmouth Park grandstand for the first time.
It was Guys Reward and Paco Lopez who took home the Oceanport, with a thrilling win, besting runner-up Fredricksburg by a narrow margin.
With that, it was Haskell Invitational time! Of course, the second it was time for the big race I ran out of memory on my camera’s SD card, so I had to boogie up to the press box to upload all of the afternoon’s photos at this crucial time.
Fortunately I was able to make it back down just in time for my absolute favorite Haskell tradition: Monmouth Park does the most awesomely New Jersey thing ever and blasts Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” over the loudspeakers as the Haskell contenders make their way onto the track, and it is glorious. Fans cheered for their favorites as jockeys and trainers grinned in genuine delight at the festivities. The fan favorite was clearly the filly Untapable and her jockey Rosie Napravnik, but each and every contender got an ovation as they made their way to the starting gate.
In the minutes before the race, fans got as close to the rail as they could, and I saw some great signs and lots of happy faces filed with anticipation for the race of the day.
Finally, it was time for the Haskell Invitational. As the horses surged in a group out of the starting gate and down the stretch into the first turn, the roar of the crowd was deafening.
But when they reemerged into the stretch for the final run to the finish line, it was Bayern on the lead all by himself, proving to be much the best of this talented field of 3-year-old colts and fillies.
As Bayern’s jockey Martin Garcia waited to head into the winner’s circle, he flashed the horde of photographers and fans in the grandstand a thumbs-up to show his appreciation for his colt’s outstanding effort in the Haskell.
And once the winning photos had been taken, Bayern received lots of pats of appreciation from his grooms and caretakers as he was led back to the barns for a well-earned rest and some dinner.
As the sun set over Haskell Invitational day at Monmouth Park, an artist was already busying himself painting winning owner Kaleem Shah’s silks on the jockey overlooking the winner’s circle.
I spoke to Bayern’s owner Mr. Shah briefly after the Haskell, and he confirmed that Bayern will be heading to the Breeders’ Cup this fall at Santa Anita Park. I already can’t wait!
Thank you for joining me at Monmouth Park for Haskell Day, and let me know what you thought of the big race in the comments! I’ll be back soon with more coverage of the awesome championship racing this summer leading us all to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.