The Heat Was On Monmouth Park To Cancel Haskell Day Horse Races

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Maximum Security was first across the finish line at the Kentucky Derby in May, and first across at the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on Saturday — only to have the “inquiry” sign light up on the board on both occasions.

The horse’s disqualification at the Derby will be long remembered, and debated. Maximum Security was declared the Haskell winner after review, but with or without controversy there, the race would have to had share headlines with another story.

Six of the 14 races on the day’s card were somewhat abruptly canceled mid-day: races 3, 4, 6, 7, 13, and 14.

Instead, only the stakes races went on, and even those were delayed for hours. The Haskell Invitational — the $1 mm race scheduled for a 5:47 p.m. post time for viewing on national television on NBC — was pushed back to 8:05 p.m. (and went off six minutes late).

A video monitor displays the modified Haskell schedule

The changes left nearly four hours of delay between the first and second races, and then the fifth race going off at 6 p.m.

The Heat Index (the combination of heat and humidity) soared past 100, even if that was better than scores of 110 or so further inland from the Oceanport track.

Politics enters the picture

Track operator Dennis Drazin had told NJ Online Gambling after Wednesday’s Media Day that he was quite confident, given his consultation with experts, that the entire card could be completed.

So what happened?

Drazin — whose uninterrupted involvement with the track dates back to boyhood visits more than a half-century ago — issued this statement mid-day Saturday that seems to reaffirm his previous comments: “We’ve been carefully monitoring the heat for days, including today, and we have a staff of veterinarians and state veterinarians, independent vets and consultants, all of whom tell us it’s safe to run, that we’re below the level required for the recommendation for cancellation.”

And yet … the statement continued:

“However, given the heightened concern from the public about the heat, and in the interest of the safety of the horses, we’ve decided to proceed with an abundance of caution, to cancel the remaining non-stakes races and to delay the six stakes races until a later post time starting at 6 p.m., with those races 25 minutes apart … We’re doing this to err on the side of caution.”

Translation: Objections from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), some of whom protested outside the gates Saturday, as well as inquiries from Gov. Phil Murphy, presumably played a role, even if Drazin did say that the decision ultimately was his.

Racehorses die

Another factor, no doubt, was the alarming and widely publicized number of racehorse deaths in the past year. At least 30 racehorses have died at Santa Anita Park since December, and in New York State a total of 600 horses died at the state’s 11 tracks in the past decade.

This issue is not new, and in many cases the fatality rates have declined. But the Santa Anita spike has produced extensive national coverage, with more media outlets investigating the fatality rates at their local tracks.

A tragedy at the Haskell would have been a disaster politically for Murphy, and it also would have increased what so far are fairly isolated cries to abolish horse racing entirely.

Sunday’s entire 11-race Monmouth Park card was canceled, meanwhile, amid expectations of an even higher Heat Index.

Heat impacts handle

The combination of “high heat” and a mid-day announcement of a truncated, delayed card that likely scared away potentially later-arriving locals naturally took its toll on the track on Haskell Day. The announced attendance of 25,713 was down more than 30% from last year’ s 37,186 attendance.

The mid-day scene at Monmouth Park on Saturday, with seating areas left empty due to the heat-related hiatus.

On-track handle also suffered greatly from the erasure of almost half the card, as well as the long delay before resumption of racing. The on-track handle of $1.96 million in 2018 declined to just $610,813 on Saturday.

Off-track handle fared better, but the $8.56 million combined total for this Haskell is dwarfed by last year’s $13.39 million. An additional issue was numerous withdrawals,  or “scratches,” of horses on Saturday due to the conditions.

The Grade 3, $150,000 Oceanport Stakes, for instance, featured just four horses. The fewer the horses, the fewer the betting options and thus the fewer the wagers. Even the Haskell feature race had just six horses after 10-1 shot Joevia was scratched.

There was an extra gut-punch for Monmouth Park, too: With Saratoga Race Course’s popular card being canceled due to heat along with alternatives in Maryland and Delaware, many bettors who tend to favor those thoroughbred races no doubt would have sampled the Haskell card.

Instead, Monmouth Park’s losses likely will turn out to be in the millions. That’s bad news for a track that had just gotten out of the red after the governor signed off on a $10 mm subsidy to thoroughbred racing in 2019 as well as the now year-old arrival of legal sports betting at the track.

Gov. Murphy’s leadership in supporting the industry, after predecessor Chris Christie had cut off subsidies and was willing to risk closure of the state’s tracks, is not taken lightly by any of the state’s horsemen. When he or an aide send a text, it gets answered. Right away.

As for the horsemen, Thomas Clark, the winning trainer of Justaholic in the Wolf Hill Stakes, told the media, “It’s hot, but I’ve raced in hotter. They all have to run in it too, so it’s a level playing field.”

The scene at the Haskell

Monmouth Park is sometimes called the “Fenway Park of thoroughbred racing” for its long tradition and quaint charm. But along with that charm comes broad expanses of the track facility that lack air conditioning — a rough scenario on a day like Saturday.

Some braved both the heat and the long interlude, even with only modest relief coming as sunset neared. Almost everyone seemed to be dressed as appropriately as was practical.

Up until two years ago, such a race betting hiatus would have meant the “only game in town” for many was simulcast betting on out-of-state races — an unappealing alternative for thousands of fans who might make the Haskell their only visit or one of their only visits of the year. (Of course, any adult with a smartphone can place sports bets from anywhere in the state, but public awareness of that is not necessarily high.)

The air-conditioned William Hill Sportsbook was an oasis for many looking to escape the Haskell heat

Following the May 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that opened the door for any state to offer sports betting, however, the William Hill Sportsbook at Monmouth Park soon opened for business.

Those easily understood betting options, such as gambling on the ongoing Yankees game or looking at “futures” bets on who will win the Super Bowl, lured many to the sportsbook on Saturday.

Of course, on a day like this, the sportsbook’s full-on air conditioning didn’t hurt, either.

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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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