We decided pretty late in the day to make the drive down to the shore for the Haskell. That’s how it goes in our family these days. With three kids all under the age of 7, it takes us a long time to get moving on the weekends. So we weren’t even in the car until 1:30 p.m., a good hour and a half past the first race post time.
We hit traffic on the way down, and had to make several pit stops along the way. We kept asking ourselves “was this a terrible idea?” By the time we made it to Monmouth there were only four races left to go. At least one of them was the feature, I told myself. And if we had arrived at this zoo earlier in the day, we likely would have been so worn out by this point that we’d have bailed before the Haskell, like a lot of families were doing as we made our way into the track and through the crowd.
I have been to several Haskells in my life, but never with my whole family. I typically sit in the grandstand or clubhouse in a seat and peacefully read the form and place my bets as the day goes on. This was my first experience being out on the lawn during the Haskell and it was memorable to say the least. We brought our lawn chairs and ice chest and wanted to sit around the playground, like we do at Belmont and Saratoga. I asked the man who sold me a Racing Form how to get to the playground. He frowned. “It’s all the way down at the end.” He then added, “Be careful.”
My wife raised her eyebrow at me. As we started toward the far turn where he pointed, she asked me, “Be careful? What did he mean?”
The lawn was full of revelers having a great time on this beautiful Sunday. But as we made it further and further through the crowd towards the playground I began to understand what the man meant. The crowd grew much younger, with lots of college-aged kids who were already 10 races deep into their partying by the time we arrived. It wasn’t the Preakness infield by any stretch, but it was still pretty rowdy. This was, after all, technically the Jersey Shore. We kept our heads down and pushed through until we made it to the oasis of the playground, safe and sound.
The playground sat right against the rail behind the far turn of the racetrack. It was as close as you could get to the track anywhere at Monmouth without a special ticket, and it offered a spectacular view of the horses right as they made their move for the final kick. It was an exciting place to watch the race, though it didn’t come without challenges. There was no view of the big screen or the tote board, and it was well out of earshot of the track announcer. For the turf races, you couldn’t even hear the bell on the starting gate. As a consequence, I missed getting some doubles in on time before the race went off.
We’d watch the horses leave the gate, make their way around the final turn, then we’d run to the bay of monitors set up on the lawn to watch the replay of the final strides. It was a strange way to watch the races, but it certainly heightened the drama throughout the day.
In the Haskell we put it all on Girvin. I didn’t think he was the best horse in the race, but he seemed as capable as anyone of winning it, and had shown some real improvement in the Ohio Derby. It was likely that race was what he needed to get him ready for this one. And anyway, he was far better than 12-1, which is what he was when I decided to bet him. I talked it over with my 7-year-old, who agreed it was a smart bet, because he had seen me win a truckload of money on Irap in the Blue Grass and figured a second place to Irap was nothing to sneeze at. We loaded up on exactas and win and place bets. When the horses came around the turn, Girvin was on the outside and I could see him catching up and gaining strides in the stretch. But watching the stretch run from behind, it was impossible to tell who won. We ran to the monitors and stood with the crowd waiting for the replay. I had no idea if Girvin was even involved in the photo. I kept listening for someone in the crowd to mention the horses that were involved. I heard someone say “7” and got excited.
“Was the 7 there?” I asked someone next to me.
“There? Hell, I think he won!”
I pumped my fist and high fived the kiddos. Then we waited an eternity for the results to post up and for the prices to hit the screen. We lucked out that another longshot hit the board second and cashed some nice tickets. We marched back to the playground to tell Katie the good news. She couldn’t believe it. I asked her if we could go to Atlantic City, N.J., if we hit the next race, too and to my surprise she said, “Sure, why not?”
So Gus and Adeline and I went to work on the Racing Form. The kids were more excited about handicapping than I’d ever seen them in my life. They asked me about what different figures and symbols in the Form stood for, and wanted to know the odds on each horse. This is a big jump from just a year ago when all they wanted to know was the horse’s name. But the prospect of staying in a hotel was on the line, and they were invested.
In the next race Gus picked a horse and I picked a horse, and I can’t remember what all genius handicapping went into our decisions, but we boxed them in a few exactas and bet them to win and show. When the horses came around the far turn, our picks were last and next-to-last. We looked at Katie and she frowned and said, “Oh well!” But I saw my horse make an amazing move to get to the outside and then I could see her surge forward. She was making her move! Maybe I’ll cash something!
When I ran over to the monitor to watch the replay, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Our ridiculous longshot picks went from worst to first in the stretch, eating up the field and finishing one-two in a dramatic blanket finish. We again waited forever for the prices to post. When I told my kids how much we won, they couldn’t believe it. Gus’s horse paid $28.00 to win. What a handicapper this kid was!
As we made our approach back to the playground, Katie saw the smiles on our faces and she couldn’t believe it. We showed her all the money we won and she said, “I guess we’re going to Atlantic City!”
The kids cheered, though for what I’m not sure. They don’t know Atlantic City from the Atlantic Ocean. They were just pumped to have something to root for.
“There’s still another race to bet,” I reminded them. They took their seats next to me and said, “Let’s check it out.”
When all the racing and gambling was said and done, we packed up and made our way to the parking lot. The racetrack blared Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” and we danced on the apron for a while. It was a beautiful afternoon on the Jersey Shore. Much too beautiful to be spent in a car headed to AC. I called an audible and we drove to Red Bank, N.J., where we ate lobster next to the shore and watched the sunset. The kids asked when we could go back to the track. How long I had waited for this day to come, I told them.
Maybe it was the glow of cashing tickets, or the fact that they had run all the energy out of their tiny bodies on the playground at the track, but they were all well behaved at the restaurant for a change. Instead of calling it a night and heading home, I decided to prolong it a little with some ice cream and a walk around Red Bank, which is a darling little town, especially at night. We walked and licked our cones and celebrated both our success at the windows and our decision to turn off the television and get in the car to go spend a lovely day outside at the shore. On a day of making smart decisions, it was the smartest one of all.