I’ve had a busy and exciting few months with several assignments from the turf, as well as other stories firmly in the old-school category. This time of the summer, in the sporting world, is always gripping; that’s been the case for my home turf of Monmouth Park. First, last year’s horse of the year, Rachel Alexandra, laid over a weak field in the Lady’s Secret Stakes there July 24th, a race basically designed for her. I have a problem with such tomfoolery, more so from the standpoint of the connections, who seem to feel the American stakes schedule is below them, rather than the track’s management. Then, a week later, last year’s 2-year-old champion Lookin at Lucky won Monmouth’s premier race, the $1 million Haskell, stamping his case for another divisional championship. I was there both days.
Although the crowd for Rachel on a sweltering day was below expectations, both days were successful for Monmouth. Never has that been so important for the historic 65-year-old track. This year, with calls from the state over the winter for change, the track shortened its schedule and upped its purses with the ambition of drawing better horses and larger fields. Fields have been bigger, and the horses better, though not as much as probably hoped for. The meet’s tagline is the “Elite Summer Meet”, but most of the cards, outside of most Saturdays, haven’t been elite. This, I realize, isn’t altogether Monmouth’s fault; there just aren’t enough quality horses any more, and the ones that exist run so infrequently, get injured or sidelined, or retire to the breeding shed at the first sign of talent. I’d like to see Monmouth experiment with the composition of its races; longer races on the main track and turf, for example. Hopefully, if the meet returns in similar form next year, that will happen. But, in short, racing has many problems, foremost of which are drugs and medication, and one track alone can’t fix them.
Even with Monmouth’s so-far successful experiment this summer, its fate is still on the line in New Jersey. This weekend, I wrote a long feature for The New York Times about the fate of harness racing and the Meadowlands racetrack in New Jersey. Monmouth, where thoroughbreds run, appears somewhat safer than the Meadowlands, which finds itself in the crosshairs of Gov. Chris Christie after a long-awaited report on gambling came out three weeks ago. It’ll be interesting to track in the next 6 months what the thoroughbred and harness industries conceive in terms of a long-term plan, which is what the governor is asking for.
On another note, I recently wrote two other stories which will be coming out soon. I had a wonderful time reporting both. The first is a story for the Daily Racing Form about said newspaper’s founder, a man named Frank Brunell. In the long history of the so-called Sport of Kings, Brunell’s influence has few parallels. He created the Daily Racing Form in 1894, and along with it racing charts, which since then have formed the backbone of the way a race is represented. His paper and his charts changed the game. Eleven years later he designed past performances, which show a horse’s previous races in an easily digestible ledger format. Again, this was a revolutionary invention, and those past performances are now inseparable from horse racing. Brunell was an eccentric; honest and thorough in the bawdy and swashbuckling times of turn-of-the-20th century Chicago, a hard drinker but a tireless visionary. My account of his life and the early days of the Form will appear this weekend.
Lastly, I recently turned in a story about a one-of-a-kind pinball museum in the seaside town of Asbury Park, N.J., which is one of the more fertile areas for my reporting. The place is a time warp, and people, young and old, are flocking there to relive old memories or create new ones. This story will run next month in Inside Jersey, the Star-Ledger’s monthly magazine; this is my second story for that publication, following my recent feature on Mr. Fashion.