by Dan Tordjman
In situations like this, there are merely estimates; ballpark projections and educated guesses on how heavy traffic will be, how many people are going to show up, and by what margin American Pharoah might win Sunday’s $1 million, Grade 1 William Hill Haskell Invitational.
There has been much preparation, but everyone here is familiar with that old saying about the best laid plans. It was here, at Monmouth Park, in 2007 that the track was truly the center of the racing universe. Monmouth played host to the Breeders’ Cup. It was a time to shine, but instead it poured. A seemingly endless rainstorm – which finally receded after the Breeders’ Cup Classic – put a damper on festivities, which drew 40,677 attendees.
This time around, rain or shine, every knowledgeable prognosticator, using any and all metrics, knows that Sunday will be the biggest day of racing in New Jersey history. The buzz surrounding American Pharoah’s first race since capturing the Triple Crown at Belmont in June is palpable. This is bigger than the Breeders’ Cup was, bigger than anything before.
The 2015 running of the Haskell isn’t just for racing fans; it’s for anyone with any desire to be at the event as part of the in crowd and get a glimpse of the it horse. Even the oldest of old timers at this track have been overcome with youthful glee. There’s a careless excitement that comes with knowing that there hasn’t ever been a day like this, and there might not be another day like it again.
“Oh, it’s just an amazing thing,” said Chuck Spina, a trainer who has been stabled at Monmouth since 1971. “I’ve been here a long time… It’ll be the biggest day ever.”
Spina, 67, has been around for nearly as long as the racetrack, itself. Racing in New Jersey dates back to 1870 but was shut down by the state for years, before reopening at Monmouth Park in 1946. Nashua in 1956 and Bold Ruler, in 1958, were among the first champions to race here. Bold Ruler, the legendary sire of Secretariat, won the final race of his career in the Monmouth Handicap.
In the ensuing decades, racing legends like Ruffian and Spectacular Bid made memorable appearances at Monmouth Park. Horses like Holy Bull, Skip Away, Point Given and, more recently, Rachel Alexandra have all won the Haskell, the showcase race of the summer meet.
“A lot of great horses have run in the Haskell,” Spina said, “but this is something really special because it’s a Triple Crown winner coming to Monmouth, out of all the places he could’ve went.”
Spina’s sentiment is one that resonates on the backstretch. There’s a certain sense of appreciation for American Pharoah’s trainer Bob Baffert (who has won the Haskell seven times) and owner Ahmed Zayat, himself a resident of the Garden State. It’s as if the horse’s team held a lottery and Monmouth Park won. Now, everyone here gets to cash their golden ticket and watch American Pharoah run.
“We’re all just very excited about it and thrilled that Mr. Zayat and Bob Baffert chose here,” Spina said.
A short walk away from the Spina barn is that of trainer Greg Sacco. His father, William J. Sacco, was here on day one, back in 1946, and won the training title in 1962. Greg’s uncles Vincent and Salvatore were also trainers.
“I grew up on the backstretch at Monmouth,” Sacco said. “I tell you, the excitement leading up to this, to have a Triple Crown winner in our backyard at one of the most beautiful tracks in the country, is really exciting.”
The excitement, Sacco noted, extends well beyond the stable area, the track and even the surrounding towns. Sacco said he’s been inundated with calls from all over about the Haskell, and a lot of the people calling couldn’t tell you the difference between a filly and a furlong.
“I have friends who aren’t even into horse racing, and my phone is ringing off the wall (with them asking), ‘Can you get me in?'” Sacco said. “If you don’t even know about horse racing, you know about the Triple Crown. Certainly, everyone is aware that American Pharoah won the Triple Crown, which is an unbelievable feat.”
Sacco’s children, age 12 and 14, are aware of it. They’ll be at the Haskell, along with their friends who, knowledgeable about racing or not, know that there’s a superhero named American Pharoah visiting their town.
Another local who can appreciate the greatness of American Pharoah’s accomplishments and the public hysteria inspired by the horse’s mere presence is jockey Joe Bravo. A fixture on the Monmouth Park riding circuit since 1989, Bravo was at Churchill Downs in June when American Pharoah made his first public appearance – walking in the paddock and parading over the track – after winning the Belmont Stakes.
“There was more excitement and more people to see American Pharoah walk around the paddock than there was for three grade one races they had at Churchill Downs that night,” Bravo said. “It really opened my eyes. Everyone just wants to get a glimpse of this horse. If they did that for him to walk around the paddock at Churchill, I can’t wait to see what kind of acceptance they’re going to have Haskell Day.”
An estimated 30,000 people showed up that night at Churchill and American Pharoah didn’t even race. Monmouth officials have prepared for a crowd of 60,000 for the Haskell – approximately 20,000 more than the rain-soaked 2007 Breeders’ Cup . Unlike this year’s Belmont Stakes, where attendance was capped at 90,000, there will be no attendance cap at the Haskell.
In anticipation of a record crowd, Monmouth Park’s Director of Media Relations John Heims said the track is adding more parking, additional trains, expanded food service and other necessary infrastructure to accommodate attendees. The track has not added additional seating but has expanded the backyard picnic area to hold more people.
In the end, there may be traffic, long lines for the bathrooms and concession stands, and, heaven forbid, rain. But regardless of what happens, there will be history; this will be the first time a Triple Crown winner has run at Monmouth Park, or at any track since 1979. When you get to experience that, it does indeed feel like you’ve won some sort of lottery.
“It’s a wonderful shot in the arm,” Sacco said, “for Monmouth, New Jersey and everyone involved.”