In a perfect world, Saturday’s running of the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park would have featured perfect weather, a big crowd, a tidy result — and the launch of fixed odds wagering for the race.
Alas, none of that came true.
Monmouth Park operator Dennis Drazin tells njonlinegambling.com that he had hoped for 30,000 fans and a $20 million handle, but due in part to the the threat of rain showers, he settled for just under 21,000 fans and $17.5 million wagered on the races.
“It was still a good day, all things considered,” Drazin said, mindful of the lingering concerns among much of the public about the COVID-19 pandemic. “People are not 100 percent ready to come out. Some still have reservations.”
As for the race itself, well, that was complicated.
No whip, no win?
Hot Rod Charlie and Mandaloun engaged in a classic photo finish in the $1 million race, with the former winning by a nose — for a moment.
Track officials reviewed a tumble down the stretch by Midnight Bourbon that led to jockey Paco Lopez taking a fall that, fortunately, turned out to be less severe than it first appeared.
But Hot Rod Charlie’s late veer left, into Midnight Bourbon’s path, quickly was found to be a disqualifying event — leading to Mandaloun being elevated to the 2021 Haskell winner.
The new riding-crop restriction in New Jersey immediately came to mind: Was it it a factor in the race?
Jockey Flavien Prat, riding Hot Rod Charlie, said that it was.
“Yes, the lack of a crop came into play — I was trying to correct him as much as I could,” Prat told bloodhorse.com. “If I could have hit him just one time left-handed, we would have been just fine, but it is what it is.”
Prat stressed that each jockey raced under the same conditions.
Bill Strauss, Hot Rod Charlie’s owner, accepted the disqualification with what Bloodhorse.com described as “a great amount of sportsmanship.”
“Flavien has a good left hand and right hand so maybe if he hit him lefthanded, he could have straightened him out, but that’s not what happened,” Strauss said. “Nobody else out there could use a whip, so it’s not an excuse. It’s a level playing field that cost us the race.”
Not so fast, says track operator
But Drazin — who had to deal with a threatened jockey boycott just before the summer meet started, as well as the actual defection of legendary Oceanport jockey “Jersey Joe” Bravo to California — called Prat’s comments “contrived.”
“If he had to hit the horse once, nothing would have happened” in terms of a risk of disqualification, Drazin said. “It was just his error in judgment.”
Drazin added that he watched a replay of the race at least a dozen times, and he agreed with what he said was Lopez’s sentiment: The riding crop restrictions had nothing to do with the way the race played out.
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Lopez suffered knee and ankle injuries but was not hospitalized. Drazin noted that Lopez was able to dine at the track’s Blu Grotto Ristorante that evening and that he was back in the winner’s circle on Sunday.
All to be solved in 2022
Drazin said that the result of the race doesn’t change anything as far as the jockey colony at Monmouth Park, where concerns about riding crop restrictions have subsided since those earlier concerns.
“There was no controversy here,” Drazin said, adding that the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act is now law.
“Federal oversight is coming, and by next year there will be national rules on all of this — likely the Kentucky version,” Drazin said.
That recently enacted law has the support of the Jockeys’ Guild, which would seemingly put the issue to bed.
The Kentucky version is less restrictive than New Jersey’s. It allows, for instance, for “cracking the whip” as much as six times in a race in overhand fashion, though no more than two times in succession. In either version, jockeys may go to the riding crop to preserve their safety and that of their horse.
The lack of consistent rules has been a headache for jockeys who choose to spend the year traveling from track to track.
Odds on fixed odds in 2021?
Meanwhile, a bill meandered through the Trenton statehouse this spring that would allow for fixed odds wagering in New Jersey. It means that a bettor putting money down beforehand on a horse to win at 5-1, for example, would be guaranteed those same odds when the race is run.
Under the traditional parimutuel system, a heavy dose of “late money” on a particular horse could lead to those odds dropping closer to 1-1, with last-second adjustments sometimes showing up on the tote board even after the horses leave the starting gate.
But the legislature didn’t approve the bill until nearly the last minute at the end of June, and Gov. Phil Murphy has yet to sign it. Murphy has until mid-August to sign it, veto it, or do nothing and allow it to become law passively.
That has left some horse players a bit on edge as to whether the new odds system is coming to New Jersey. But Drazin does not seem to be in that camp,
“The governor has a lot of bills that were put on his desk, frankly,” Drazin said of Murphy, who on Saturday passed up the Haskell to attend the prestigious Meadowlands Pace harness racing card at the Meadowlands Racetrack. “I don’t think there is any question that the bill will get signed.
“This is a long-term play, and the governor wants to make sure to get it right,” Drazin added. “He has been very supportive of horse racing. We also still need to finalize regulations.”
The Monmouth meet lasts until Sept. 26, and Drazin did not rule out the possibility of a soft rollout of fixed odds before the final weekend.
The harness racing operators at the Meadowlands Racetrack and Freehold Raceway have adopted a “wait and see” approach based on how fixed odds plays out with the betting public at Monmouth Park, so no change is expected on that front before next summer.
Photo: Peter Ackerman/Asbury Park Press