I was born in the Garden State, and the first racetrack I ever attended was Monmouth Park in Oceanport, so it pains me to see this grand old matron of the seashore up for grabs to a variety of bidders, one of which will take over as lessee before the 2011 meet gets underway, reportedly on May 14, one week later than last year.
Although by law the track must run 141 dates in 2011, it is believed the lucky bidder will try and reduce that number to 80 dates, but it must be approved by the state’s horsemen.
This scenario has come about because N. J. Gov. Chris Christie has vowed to “get the state out of the horse racing business.” Currently, Monmouth and the Meadowlands in East Rutherford are owned and operated by the N. J. Sports & Exposition Authority.
Having covered Monmouth since 1994, I have no complaints as to how the NJSEA handled the racetrack. The plant was always clean and well-maintained; the employees who worked in media relations were always friendly, efficient and professional (John Heims, George Bernet and the late Steve Schwartz spring to mind), as were track management. Some of the best track managers I have ever dealt with were at Monmouth – Hal Handel, Bruce Garland and Bob Kulina, to name but a few.
Many young members of NJSEA’s management team have gone on to bigger and better things within the sport of racing, too – Jim Gagliano now heads The Jockey Club, while Chris McErlean is a vice president at Penn National Gaming, Inc., overseeing its stable of properties.
Call me pessimistic, but I have a sinking feeling that Monmouth Park’s best days are behind her. No matter who (or what) takes over the circa-1946 oval, brought to life by such familiar names as Amory L. Haskell, Philip H. Iselin, Reeve Schley, Joseph M. Roebling, Townsend B. Martin, John MacDonald and James Cox Brady, it may never again be the same.
The most cherished memories I have from my youth are from hot summer afternoons spent with my late grandfather, father and mother in the open, airy Monmouth grandstand, hearing the voice of the late announcer Bob Weems call the action and the roar of the crowd as the horses rounded the turn and headed into the homestretch. As a girl, my favorite horses weren’t always the stars – I loved Razzle Dazzle Rey, Owens Troupe, and Al Hattab – and liked jockeys Buck Thornburg, Rick Wilson and Chuck Baltazar. My father worshipped Julie Krone and John Forbes, who together made a formidable jockey-trainer duo back in the 1980’s. My mother picked horses on the basis of their pretty names, and was always horrified at the cost of the Daily Racing Form. My brother Greg, who lives in Toms River, once got a “hot tip” from an old man in the men’s room, and collected nearly $75 for his deuce wager, a memorable day, indeed!
Photo courtesy Equiphoto.com
As a turf writer, it was a dream come true to cover the Monmouth beat and make daily handicapping selections to boot, getting access to nooks and crannies in the grandstand and clubhouse that few $2 bettors ever see. Imagine, a horse-crazy girl like me from Bayonne, N. J. sharing the champagne toast with the winning connections of the Haskell Invitational on the Parterre level, or taking the elevator to the press box, where the greatest characters in the world worked, gambled, and kibitzed. The strains of Frank Sinatra singing “Summer Wind” after the last race always put a perfect exclamation point on the day.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, or so I’ve been told, but the imminent demise of the “golden age” of Monmouth Park – the new lessee is sure to want to cut services, employees, purses and overall quality - has filled me with a profound sadness, for it marks not only the end of an era, but also a wonderful part of my life.