by Dan Tordjman
Everywhere you turned, there were people – from those putting on the show to the ones watching it – taking mental snapshots, soaking in moments at Monmouth Park on Sunday that they might carry for years to come.
For the large majority of the those in attendance, the biggest visual impression was made by the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years returning to action in dominant form in the $1.75-million, Grade 1 William Hill Haskell Invitational. American Pharoah would easily win his first race since capturing the Belmont Stakes in June.
But that was just one story. There were many more to be found around the track. Take the story of Abel Castellano Jr., for example. A native of Venezuela, Castellano was once a leading rider in Maryland but has spent recent years bouncing around the mid-Atlantic in search of a hot streak. He’d found one at Monmouth Park this summer – a strong meet has him currently third in the rider standings – and things got even better for him on Sunday.
After scoring an upset win in the fifth race of the day aboard Azure Dragon for trainer Michael Dini and owner Ruman Stable, Castellano scored another win in the Grade 3 Matchmaker Stakes on fast-closing Casual Smile for owner W. S. Farish and trainer Chad Brown.
Casual Smile had been sent off at odds of 9.60-to-1. Prior to the Monmouth meet, Castellano hadn’t won a graded stakes race since 2004. He’s won two in Oceanport this year.
“I mean, thank God. Everything is going good. I’m very thankful,” Castellano said.
Castellano was even more grateful for what happened after the race, when he returned to the winner’s circle. His three boys Aaron, Abraham and Andrew (age 3, 7 and 9) proudly ran to Castellano’s side, high-fived him and posed for pictures.
“This was a big sensation,” Castellano said. “Really, I’m very thankful to have this opportunity. Plus, to have a great day like this, having the best horse right now in American Pharoah, and (I’m) going to run against that horse.”
Castellano would go on to finish fifth in the Haskell, while riding Top Clearance. No matter, his lasting image had already been made.
Earlier in the card, a 4-year-old Heatseeker gelding named Hot to Seek Her was sent off at odds of 67.50-to-1 in a $40,000 allowance race. While most in attendance might’ve overlooked the horse, he managed to briefly gain the lead late in the race, only to be caught just before the wire by race favorite Dujac for trainer Chad Brown and owner Alpha Delta Stables.
Hot to Seek Her finished second. The horse’s trainer, Chuck Spina, has been stabled at Monmouth since 1971, and earlier in the week had said that this year’s Haskell featuring American Pharoah would be the biggest day he could ever remember for racing in New Jersey. It also meant something to Spina that he’d have a horse running on the card. Hot to Seek Her’s game effort was Spina’s contribution to the state’s biggest racing day.
Another person who didn’t win on Sunday but still walked away with a positive experience was jockey Mike Smith. The California-based, Hall of Fame rider went winless in six mounts on the day, including a fourth place finish aboard Competitive Edge in the Haskell. Stopped in the paddock and asked to describe his feelings on the day, Smith explained that it meant a lot to him.
“It’s a great, great day for Jersey,” Smith said. “It was so unfortunate when they had the Breeders’ Cup here and we had the rain. We’re having a lovely, lovely day today, a huge crowd, probably larger than the Breeders’ Cup that day.”
Attendance, officially announced as 60,983, was indeed larger than the 2007 Breeders’ Cup. Despite the crowd, many fans noted that traffic around Monmouth wasn’t as bad as some had predicted, nor did the track feel as crowded as might have been expected.
“I came late and I missed the traffic. I got here at 11:00 am and there was no traffic,” said Laurie Spinelli, while laughing in a mischievous way, as if she’d gotten away with something.
Spinelli was pressed up against the clubhouse apron rail with Phyllis Stallone, who had made the three-and-a-half hour trek to Monmouth Park from Bethesda, Md., on Sunday morning. Stallone had seen an opportunity to get the best possible view at the rail of American Pharoah being led from the barn to the paddock, and she took it.
“I saw someone leave this spot and I literally ran over here,” said Stallone, also laughing with a tinge of guilt.
Moments later, the gates flew open and the Haskell was underway. It wasn’t until about a minute and a half later that a day of lasting images reached its climax. I was standing near the eighth pole as American Pharoah opened up a five-length lead in mid-stretch.
It wasn’t just the ease with which American Pharoah had secured his lead that caught the eye, it was the intensity with which jockey Victor Espinoza was trying to do what jockeys rarely do – to slow his horse. Espinoza tugged at the reins with all his strength. His hands were visibly shaking as he geared down American Pharoah as they entered the final sixteenth. Finally, the horse relented. He showed mercy on his foes.
This Haskell was never in doubt. American Pharoah won by 2 1/4 lengths over Keen Ice, with Upstart a further three lengths behind in third. In the press box after the race, one veteran turf writer speculated American Pharoah’s margin of victory “could’ve been 10 lengths.” To which, another writer responded, “It could’ve been anything” he wanted it to be.
American Pharoah delivered, and in exactly the way the crowd, and racing, wanted him to. But his wasn’t the only story told on this day, the only image engraved on the mind. A journeyman jock, a veteran trainer, a giddy fan — these were all things that could be seen at Monmouth on Sunday, and they’re all images that will surely last.