New Jersey Steeplechase Event Marred By Tragedy

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The second Far Hills Race Meeting steeplechase event to feature legal, regulated wagering drew an estimated crowd of 40,000 on Saturday in the 99th staging of the popular Central Jersey event.

But tragedy struck in the featured race, the $450,000 Grand National, when Wicklow Brave, the favorite, suffered a fractured shoulder in falling at the final fence. Wicklow Brave was transported to the stables, but veterinarians had to euthanize the horse.

Guy Torsilieri, the chairman of the event, described the outcome as “heartbreaking.”

“My whole team is very upset, of course,” said Dennis Drazin, whose Darby Racing company runs both the Monmouth Park thoroughbred schedule and the one-day steeplechase event. “You plan out everything you can to try to prevent something like that from happening, but unfortunately you can’t always avoid it.”

The death on Saturday is part of what has been a grim drumbeat of publicity for horse racing in 2019, with the 34 equine deaths at Santa Anita Park in California over the past year particularly producing national headlines.

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The news has led to some animal rights activists calling for a ban on the sport entirely, and Monmouth Park officials had to take the issue into account at this summer’s Haskell Invitational, where a high heat index led to a truncated card and the time shifting of the key stakes races to the early evening.

Steeplechase wagering up

Both the on-site and off-site handle were up considerably from last year, from about $211,000 to $291,00 on-site and from $355,000 to $438,000 off-site.

“There was more awareness about the option of betting on the races this year, partly from promotions and publicity before the day of the race,” Drazin said. “This is something that we expect will continue to build from year to year.”

In other words, the show will go on again next year on the betting front.

“There is a lot of logistical planning, but we find that it is something worth doing,” Drazin said. “As long as the organizers are interested, we’ll be happy to continue to run the betting.”

Brain Power captured the Grand National race by 15 lengths.

The steeplechase meet, whose forerunner called The Essex Hunt dates back to Montclair in 1870, gained some unwelcome notoriety in 2013 when a British newspaper published a story about the “white elite” that it said dominates the crowd at the Somerset County site.

That has led to a crackdown in 2018 on underage and other youthful drinking, although tailgating remains an often elaborate affair among attendees of all ages (including this non-elite writer once, in the 1980s).

Breaking down the remaining NJ horse racing dates

The event was a break in Monmouth Park’s fall meet at the Meadowlands Racetrack, which concludes on Friday and Saturday on the turf with post times at 12:30 p.m. Sunday will be the 2019 finale at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, post time 1:15 p.m.

Live harness racing resumed on Oct. 11 at the Meadowlands after a two-month break, and continues on Friday and Saturday nights (first post 7:15 p.m.) for the rest of the calendar year.

Freehold Raceway, after a summer off, continues its Friday and Saturday afternoon harness racing cards for the rest of 2019 as well.

Photo by Elya Vatel  / Shutterstock.com

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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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