In 2019, The Haskell Stakes race card was truncated from 14 races to eight after political pressure to cancel the entire card had been applied.
Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic left the Monmouth Park track welcoming only 3,546 fans to the annual mid-summer thoroughbred horse racing event — a far cry from the 60,000-plus who attended the same racing day in 2015 to see Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
But the $1 million TVG.com Haskell Stakes on July 17 might well produce a return to — well, close to normal.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday announced a series of loosenings of pandemic-related restrictions, including an increase as of May 7 to a maximum capacity of 50% for large outdoor facilities.
Monmouth Park operator Dennis Drazin told NJ Online Gambling that means that up to 20,000 patrons can visit the Oceanport track each weekend day once racing resumes on May 28.
That capacity maximum will have only an occasional impact, Drazin said — namely Haskell Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and perhaps another holiday weekend day.
Looking ahead to the racing season
Drazin added that admission this summer will be free outside of Haskell Day, and parking also will be free. But Drazin said that at least at this point, visitors may have to wear masks even when outside if not actively eating or drinking. Six feet of social distancing also is in place — although Murphy suggested at his press conference that the CDC might soon reduce that distance.
“To be honest, I don’t think even the experts have all the answers yet,” Drazin said. “So we can’t let our guard down just yet.”
Attracting the optimal field for the Haskell always is a challenge given competition from other summer races, but Medina Spirit’s surprise win for trainer Bob Baffert in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday could bode well.
Baffert, who won the Derby for a record seventh time, has won the Haskell a record nine times going back 20 years.
Three of Baffert’s six previous Derby winners have entered and won the Haskell in the same year, and all 15 Baffert horses who entered the race have finished in the win, place, or show slots.
“I thought the Kentucky Derby went well for us,” Drazin said. “Of course, [Baffert] has a lot of good horses to choose from.”
First horses arrive at Monmouth
Just after 6 a.m. on May 1, the first two vans transporting racehorses arrived at Monmouth Park.
“I’m not always the first to get here, but I’m usually among the first,” 72-year-old trainer Chuck Spina told a track official. “I’m excited to be back. I don’t go to Florida over the winter.”
Monmouth Park racing secretary John Heims said that demand for stall space has soared this year, and Drazin said the track received about 2,000 applications for the 1,600 stalls.
The Oceanport track will feature 46 stakes races overall — 10 of them graded — worth more than $6 million.
There will be a special four-day weekend of racing on May 28-31, culminating with a Memorial Day card. Then the track switches to its regular schedule of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday racing in June, July, and August.
The Sept. 3-5 weekend schedule will be topped with a Labor Day racing card on Sept. 6. That will be followed by Saturday/Sunday-only racing on Sept. 11-12, 18-19, and 25-26 to complete the racing season.
With so few live sporting events to watch last spring and early summer, Monmouth Park, like many racetracks, became a must-see-TV site for gamblers.
Monmouth Park’s average daily simulcast handle increased 27.1% in 2020 to $3.6 million, compared to $2.8 million in 2019. The overall average daily handle was up 20.8%, to $3.8 million compared to $3.2 million in 2019.
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