The Haskell makes its 45th run at Monmouth Park
By Sharon Hazard
OCEANPORT — The July 29 running of the Haskell Invitational Race at Monmouth Park will mark 45 years of exciting contests for the most well-known horse race in New Jersey.
If Sunday’s race follows the success of previous years, nearly 40,000 will be in attendance to watch the nation’s top 3-year-olds take on the 1 1/8 mile course.
Known as the track’s premier event, the $1 million elite competition will feature Dullahan, the horse that finished third in this year’s Kentucky Derby. Also slated to run are Belmont Stakes runner-up Paynter and Grade One Wood Memorial winner Gemologist.
“Of course this could all change. Right up to race day horses can be scratched but we’re thinking positive,” said John Heinz, Monmouth Park media relations director.
Plans call for 14 races that day with the Haskell scheduled as the 12th, as in previous years, Heinz said.
In the past, winners of the Haskell have gone on to be named national 3-year-old champions. Those racing legends include Point Given (2001), War Emblem (2002) and Lookin at Lucky (the 2012 winner). Last year, Coil, the son of Point Given, added another winner to the line.
“The Haskell is one of the most anticipated sports event of the season at the shore,” Heinz said.
The name Haskell has become synonymous with high-stakes racing. The first event called the Haskell, held at Monmouth Park in 1968, was run as a handicap race for older horses. It was made an invitational handicap race in 1981.
According to racetrack history, Amory Haskell (1863-1966), who the race is named for, is the man that can be credited with keeping the sport alive in the state of New Jersey. Over the years horse racing at the Jersey Shore has had many metamorphoses and the track itself, many physical relocations.
Monmouth Park’s inaugural race was held on July 4, 1870, with President Ulysses S. Grant and Boss Tweed in attendance to watch Lobella, a horse owned by prizefighter John Morris, win the first race. The opening day purse was $31,000, a large sum of money in those days, according to Entertaining a Nation, a now out-of-print book, published in 1942.
An article in Turf, Field and Farm, a popular magazine published during the late 1800s, described the grandstand there as “one of the most magnificent of its kind in the country, capable of seating several thousand people and so situated that the horse racing can be seen all the way without rising from one’s seat.” The track was located on a piece of land between the Shrewsbury River and Parker’s Creek on Oceanport Avenue bordering Little Silver.
In 1873 a decision to allow the horse, Tom Bowling, to win the Jersey Derby held at Monmouth Park, after an unfair start resulted in a lost of interest by many in horse racing and the track closed in 1878, according to Entertaining a Nation.
Several summer residents of Long Branch realized that such a valuable piece of property should not stand idle. The group, calling themselves the Monmouth Park Association and consisting of New York City money men August Belmont, David Withers and George Lorillard, purchased the racetrack and set about restoring its grounds and reputation, according to the track’s history relayed in the book.
The number of races gradually increased and in 1888 attendance was soaring. Such success warranted expansion and the Monmouth Park Association bought the Casler and Field farms on the peninsula in the Shrewsbury River between Parker’s Creek and the inlet at Oceanport. Now with a total of 640 acres, three times the size of the first track, a new grandstand was erected. It was 700 feet long and 210 feet wide, reputedly the largest in the world, seating 100,000 spectators, according to Entertaining a Nation. In place of the old track, three new ones were laid out including a three-quarter mile straightaway. Forty stables accommodated 1,000 horses.
The new park opened in 1890, attracting the best horses and the biggest betters. Diamond Jim Brady and his girlfriend actress Lillian Russell were regulars. Unfortunately, the glory days of racing at the Jersey Shore were short-lived. Statutes against wagering on horses were adopted. The track closed in 1894 and the property was sold.
The former site settled into an unglamorous mix of farmland and abandonment until 1917 when the United States Army leased it as a training site for officers serving in World War I. Up until 2011, it was the Main Post of Fort Monmouth.
According to the Monmouth Park website, horse racing in New Jersey was outlawed for 53 years until Haskell championed the cause of legalizing parimutuel wagering for Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing. After several years of intense lobbying, Haskell was successful in getting an amendment to the state Constitution adopted that allowed betting. He organized a group of prominent businessmen to build a new racetrack. The newly organized Monmouth Park Jockey Club opened on the new site, the present location on Oceanport Avenue, on June 19, 1946 with 18,724 in attendance.
Thanks to Haskell this Sunday, July 29, the gates will once again open at 10 a.m. with the first race starting at noon. Every paid admission is entitled to a free Haskell souvenir hat. Last year, Haskell’s daughters, Hope Haskell-Jones and Anne Haskell-Ellis presented the Haskell Trophy. Heinz said representatives of the family again will be on-hand this year.