County Final
County Final and 2020 Joe Bravo won the Tyro Stakes. Photo By Ryan Denver/EQUI-PHOTO.

Monmouth Park’s 2021 meet kicks off Friday evening with a six-race card topped by the $100,000 Jersey Derby, a test for sophomores going a mile on the turf. But what should be a festive occasion – the return of live racing to the Jersey Shore – instead is plagued by controversy.

Take the Jersey Derby. The longtime fixture has eight horses entered in the main body of the race, but two of them, in the early entries, didn’t have riders named. That’s the problem the track is facing.

Late last year the New Jersey Racing Commission passed a new regulation prohibiting jockeys from using the riding crop for any purpose but safety. An attempt via the court system by the Jockeys’ Guild to prevent the implementation of the new regulation failed.

So the choice facing jockeys: ride under what many consider to be unsafe rules, or don’t ride at all. It wasn’t surprising at all that the legal effort to get a temporary injunction failed. What is surprising, however, is how the jockeys have responded: in many cases, by staying away.

In fact, none of the top seven riders by earnings at the Monmouth meet last spring and summer has a mount on the opening day card. And when the Asbury Park Press wrote that several riders, including Jorge A. Vargas, Jr., who won 19 races during that meet last year, had indicated their willingness to ride, Vargas responded by Twitter.

“They must [have asked] some other Jorge Vargas ‘cause this one isn’t riding without a crop,” he wrote.

Vargas was third in purse earnings last year, and he’s not alone. Neither of the top two – Paco Lopez or Jersey Joe Bravo – will be back either, Bravo telling the Press that he would not ride at Monmouth “with the riding crop rule they have in place.

The six-race opening day card has 42 total horses, with 13 jockeys named to ride them.