Major team sports in the U.S. seem on the verge of returning, but what was a gambler to do on Saturday?
For many in New Jersey and beyond, the answer was to check out the horse racing at the Haskell thoroughbred event at Monmouth Park or the Meadowlands Pace harness racing card at that East Rutherford track.
Both cards blew away expectations.
Huge handle, limited live crowds
For the Haskell — the biggest event of the year at Monmouth Park — handle was an all-time best $20,479,392.
That topped the previous record set five years earlier, when 61,000 watched Triple Crown winner American Pharoah — whose owner Ahmed Zayat hails from Bergen County — add the Haskell to his list of triumphs.
The Meadowlands Pace — the premier evening event in North American harness racing — a few hours later produced a handle of $5,051,261. That was the most wagered on that card since 2008, and easily ranks as the top harness racing handle of 2020.
What makes both handles so remarkable is that due to COVID-19 restrictions regarding social distancing, only a limited number of fans could attend.
At Monmouth Park, 3,546 fans were on hand. That stands in contrast to the tens of thousands of fans who typically show up annually as much for the pageantry and opportunity to show off fancy hats as for the races themselves.
An Authentic champion
But bettors who had to stay home eagerly bet up the prestigious 14-race card that was highlighted by a featured race win by California-bred Authentic, who barely held off a game Ny Traffic in a near photo finish for the Grade 1 TVG.com Haskell Stakes.
The victory guaranteed Authentic a spot in the Kentucky Derby — reshuffled in this pandemic year until September — and the season-concluding Breeders’ Cup in November.
Authentic, who was a 3/5 favorite in the field of seven, raised some eyebrows with the lack of a finishing kick in the 1 1/8th-mile race ahead of the 1 1/4th-mile Derby and Breeders’ Cup.
But Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith said he’s not concerned about Authentic, who earned $600,000 for his owners, trainer Bob Baffert, and his team.
“He’s a colt with an abundance of talent. Ability is something he does not lack. He’s got a lot of it,” Smith said after the race. “But what he is lacking right now, he’s learning. He’s growing up. He sees things.
“Down the backside, if you get a chance to look at the head-on, there are a lot of shadows back there from the sun at this point. He looked at every single one of them and he wouldn’t let me get him down close to the fence because he was looking at them too much.”
For the Meadowlands Pace, which faced similar restrictions on attendance, handle for its 13-race card was up 25% over a year ago.
Tall Dark Stranger held off Papi Rob Hanover in the featured race in a dramatic finish.
“Honestly, at the top of the stretch I thought he was beat,” winning driver Yannick Gingras said after the race. “This horse is just so gritty. He’s a fighter; he wants to fight them off. Last year I said after the Breeders Crown that he was going to come back and win this race. There were a lot of doubters out there, but I think tonight was the proof.”
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