HASKELL DAY 2020 UNLIKE ANY OTHER
There are many words that have been beaten into the ground this year, while trying to describe things affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unreal. Unprecedented. Surreal. Unusual. Strange. Go through your twitter timeline on an average day, and you’ll see those words peppered throughout any description of any activity.
The same is true in horse racing, which has begun to take on a somewhat normal shape. This is despite many tracks operating either without fans, or a very limited number of them. Even though the above words are a cliche, how else could you describe the atmosphere at last Saturday’s Haskell at Monmouth Park?
One of the top races for 3-year-olds in the country, the Haskell usually attracts a crowd of more than 35,000 to Monmouth Park, and has drawn as many as 60,000 in the past. This year, because of pandemic-related attendance restrictions, it was almost the polar opposite.
Attendance was originally limited to 500 fans, then eventually boosted up to 1,500. Those who wanted to get in had to pay $100 per general admission ticket, or $150 for a special package that included admission to the adjacent Blu Grotto restaurant after the races.
While obviously necessary to help control the spread of COVID-19, the restrictions turned Haskell day on its head. Usually, the track is bustling with people all day long. For the big race, you have to either pick a spot by the paddock or a spot by the rail long before the start; you certainly can’t get both. This year, I was able to get a prime location in the paddock simply by walking up to the fence with 20 minutes to post. When post time neared for the Haskell, I walked over to the rail and had my choice of spots at which to watch the big one.
Things were a lot different for the press this year as well. The usual press box was closed off. Instead, members of the press corps were redirected to the Turf Club, a large, mercifully air-conditioned room in the clubhouse near the finish line.
Tables were well-spaced out, and media folk were assigned two to a table. Lunch was provided — but you could not eat it in the Turf Club itself. You had to take it to the nearby grandstand seats.
The jockey list was another reminder of the current situation. A few days before, Saratoga announced that jockeys who left that track to ride elsewhere would not be permitted to return, and those riding elsewhere currently would not be allowed into the Spa. Del Mar, outside of San Diego, announced similar restrictions after being forced to cancel a weekend of racing.
As a result, Mike Smith was the only non mid-Atlantic based jockey on the grounds, in a sea of locals. Irad Ortiz Jr, the top jockey in the country, was scheduled to ride Dr Post, but he was forced to stay at Saratoga. Joe Bravo picked up the mount in his place.
So it was far from an ordinary Haskell day, with much of the atmosphere sapped away by necessity. Nevertheless, the quality of racing was as good as it’s been on Haskell day in years. There were six stakes races, including the track’s two Grade 1 events, the Haskell and the United Nations Stakes.
The five stakes outside of the Haskell had an average field size of 9.4 horses. There was plenty of mid-Atlantic representation: Joe Bravo won the United Nations for the fifth time, on Aquaphobia, and also won the Molly Pitcher on New Jersey-bred Horologist. Global Campaign, co-owned by Maryland-based Sagamore Farm, took the Monmouth Cup in a gutsy effort.
The Haskell itself was a thriller: Bob Baffert-trained Authentic looked clear in the stretch, but was only barely able to hold off a late rally from Ny Traffic.
The real story of the day, however, proved to be the handle. The old record, set when American Pharoah came to town in 2015, was just over $20 million, with $17 million of it wagered off-track. The record for a Haskell day without a Triple Crown race winner in the field was set in 2014, when $15.9 million was wagered, $13.4 million of it off-track.
This year, the crowd of around 1,500 wagered about $571,000. Off-track, a whopping $19,907,901 was wagered, making for a record-setting handle of $20,479,392. That didn’t just break the non-Triple Crown record, it shattered it. It’s been a common theme for racing this year: even though on-track attendance has been severely curtailed, handle has shot through the roof at tracks all over the country.
Despite the unusual circumstances, it was one of the most successful Haskell days in history, all things considered. It may not have been the typical Haskell atmosphere, but it was still one of the best days of racing Monmouth’s had in a while.
MONMOUTH STAKES WINNERS