After a disappointing cancellation last year of what would have been the 100th running of the Far Hills Race Meeting steeplechase, pleasant weather — and even more importantly, fans — graced the fabled site on Saturday.
But with COVID-19 still not in the rearview mirror, by no means was the northern Somerset County event “back to normal.”
The crowd of 28,000 was down from estimates of 40,000 in 2019 and 35,000 in 2018, and not all amenities were available.
“The pandemic changed the format a bit, because it was difficult to do planning for an event in this current environment,” Monmouth Park operator Dennis Drazin told NJ Online Gambling.
“But I’m told that overall it was a great day, and organizers were pleased,” Drazin said.
There was even a report about an engagement that took place during the afternoon event.
Wagering took a hit this year
The 98th and 99th steeplechase meets in 2018 and 2019 were the first two that featured legal gambling on the horses, as Drazin worked out a deal to sacrifice one of his fall “Monmouth-at-Meadowlands” weekend dates to offer the wagering at the steeplechase.
With lines of would-be bettors perhaps not seeming like an ideal scenario, there were no tellers on the site this year. Instead, patrons were instructed to download the NJ4Bets app on their smartphones to sign up for an account — with a 50% match for new signups on up to $250 deposited into that account.
With many in the crowd typically not otherwise planning to bet on races on any other day — and with many more interested in tailgating than in handicapping races — the handle took a bit of a hit. After total handles of $355,000 in 2018 and $438,000 in 2019, the total this year, Drazin said, was $339,000.
Drazin said he sees that as a good showing, given that only six races — not seven — were held, and that one race had just three horses and another had only four.
A big plus, he added, was that the Fox Sports 2 cable channel showed the races for three hours, a first for the venerable event. America’s Day at the Races, produced by the New York Racing Association, had Larry Collmus — the voice of both the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup races — calling the races for the broadcast.
“We’re so excited to share the thrills and majesty of steeplechase with a national audience,” said Guy Torsilieri, chairman of the Far Hills Race Meeting. “While canceling last year’s race was disappointing, being able to celebrate our centennial with a nationwide audience is even more amazing than we could have ever hoped for.”
‘Queen’ of the steeplechase
As for the race card itself, a five-year-old mare named The Mean Queen scored a half-length victory over Snap Decision in the $150,000 Grand National feature race at 2 and 5/8th miles.
The Mean Queen has six wins and one second in eight races this year — including five wins in six U.S. starts — and became the first female winner of the Grand National since Sea Tale in 1923. She is a lock for an Eclipse Award.
The Far Hills Race Meeting was the richest of the year on the National Steeplechase Association tour, with $400,000 in total purses for the six races.
Fixed odds update
Drazin, who has been a proponent of fixed-odds for the past two years, said that he is still waiting for the regulations to be finalized by state officials.
“Once they come out, we can start trying to figure out what’s next,” Drazin said.
It’s too late for this weekend’s Breeders’ Crown at the Meadowlands Racetrack, although the standardbred leaders in the state already had expressed their preference for their thoroughbred counterparts to try it first before deciding if they wanted to follow suit.
A possible scenario could have Drazin just waiting until next spring and the resumption of the live Monmouth Park meet in Oceanport to offer fixed odds on win/place/show betting that, unlike parimutuel betting, locks in a number at the time of the bet.
But Drazin said he’s not ready to settle for that just yet.