“Is there anybody alive out there?”
That familiar, gospel preacher-like call to his arena or stadium audience often comes from Bruce Springsteen, who grew up in the shadow of Freehold Raceway.
But on Sunday, The Boss’s words were evocative of the mood at Monmouth Park, a thoroughbred racetrack about 15 miles to the east.
While all the weather forecasts agreed that there was no point in “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day,” the skies behaved otherwise at first post at 12:15 p.m. — with a lack of clouds and a temperature in the 70s ruling the moment.
Free parking, free admission, and — for more than 90% of the patrons, it turned out, freedom from masks — marked a glorious “ended” feel to the brutal global pandemic that has dominated the landscape since March 2020.
Memorial Day weekend marked Monmouth Park’s launch of its summer meet, but the weather mostly didn’t cooperate before this weekend. Too hot, too cold … on Sunday, the climate was just right.
Hot dog and beer vendors had a noticeable spring in their step, especially when recognizing longtime customers for the first time in too long — with COVID-19 and its grim wake, who knows who will be back?
A toddler who donned a renegade pirate hat fervently wished “good luck!” to two different jockeys in the same race just seconds apart — and both saluted the warm wishes with waves and big smiles.
Controversies kept at bay
Before the start of the meet, legendary Monmouth Park jockey “Jersey Joe” Bravo led the charge against an unpopular and what jockeys call draconian strict limitation on the use of a riding crop, or whip, during races.
Bravo wound up leaving for California, but a widespread boycott of the track hasn’t materialized. And on a serene Sunday, the only noticeable mention of it came in in the form of a terse announcement just before the first race: “No crop for the riders of horses 5 and 6.” (Horse 6 finished second anyway.)
Even T-shirts worn by a middle-aged pair — “I like beer, horses … and maybe three people” — came across far more as “Jersey wink” humor than hostile.
As far as masks went, the mostly outdoor track featured few patrons going that route. A sign at the front gate had an all-too familiar refrain: “Attention guests: By entering you agree that you have answered no to the following questions” about having had a fever, known anyone recently diagnosed with COVID-19, or had any other ailing symptoms.
Gorgeous day here at Monmouth Park Racetrack, where you might have a better shot at finding a 40-1 shot winner than seeing a visitor wearing a mask – employees an exception pic.twitter.com/fmG54bMswf
— John Brennan (@BergenBrennan) June 13, 2021
Like everywhere else in the region, some track indicators were ambiguous as a new, freer environment begins to take hold. A sign just inside the entrance to the William Hill sports bar indicated, “Per NJ Indoor Dining Executive Order … ” that dining customers must be seated by a host and that there would be a $25 minimum purchase per table.
But even as a Yankees-Phillies game began on several televisions and as the French Open men’s tennis final reached a fifth and final set, only two dozen or so patrons were in attendance with such pleasant weather beckoning just outside. A staff member indicated that the restrictions on the sign might not be reinforced again “until football Sundays” in September.
Most of the staff at the sportsbook and elsewhere on the grounds donned masks, a seemingly sensible “abundance of caution” that could soothe the most skittish of patrons, while being irrelevant to the vast majority of attendees.
New rules in place
New this year is a $35 “picnic buffet” that has replaced the old “bring your own food and drink” policy at the Oceanport track. Visitors save a few dollars each on parking and entrance fees — but for some, the tradeoff may feel like a net loss.
Still, a 12-inch long Max’s Famous Hot Dog “Established 1928” — joined with a six-inch bun — that is an annual staple for now-embattled trainer Bob Baffert ought to soothe the minds of most patrons, along with a $7 Goose Island IPA draft served by an enthusiastic barkeep offering any and all good luck with the day’s racing wagers.
In the featured TVG.com Pegasus Stakes race, Kentucky Derby runner-up Mandaloun — or is he the winner? — rallied to beat a mere four horses as the 3-10 favorite, with $106,920 bet to show on him out of a pool of $140,505.
Sunday was not a day for frenzied activity, as 58 minutes elapsed between first post and the start of the third horse race. Instead, it was a day to celebrate, well, a revival.
Said one hopeful bettor as he and his friend ambled toward the rail before the next race: “If everything works out, we’ll be getting filet mignon!”