On Saturday, across the eastern and most of the midwestern United States, you could not get a bet down on a live horse race from Laurel Park in suburban Washington, D.C., to Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack in Farmington, N.Y.
Saratoga shut down, as did Parx Racing near Philly, Delaware Park, and tracks as far away as Ohio and Kentucky. Temperatures were in the upper 90s and the heat index soared above 100 degrees. It made no sense to race in those conditions, although the horses, as always, didn’t get to vote.
The lone exception amid these decisions to accept the obvious was Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., where the jewel of its annual meet, the $1 million Haskell Invitational, was scheduled, along with five other stakes races.
Officials at Saratoga said a heat index of 105 is an “absolute.” When the index reaches that level, there will be no races. The heat index was 107 for the first post at Monmouth, and after a delay while track officials huddled, the race went off, as did the second on the card.
That’s when things came to a halt for a while, and maybe it is when Gov. Phil Murphy called to ask if the track would like to remain in business. Murphy recently pushed through legislation that will provide as much as $100 million in bigger purses over the next five years in New Jersey. Monmouth will receive $10 million for 2019 alone. The sight of a horse buckling on national television due to being run in excessive conditions would make repeal of that legislation more than likely.
“I think we could have run safely. I don’t think we would have had any incidents. But God forbid we did. Everyone was going to say we should have canceled,” said Dennis Drazin, the CEO of Darby Entertainment, which owns Monmouth. “We’re an ocean resort. We have a breeze coming in off the ocean. This isn’t a hotbed like Saratoga or Delaware.”
At the end of a day’s racing at Monmouth, the speakers crackle to life and Frank Sinatra sings “The Summer Wind,” but the breeze is indeed a fickle friend, and on Saturday, regardless of Drazin’s observation, its breath was undetectable.
The ultimate decision was made to cancel six races, and resume the truncated card at 6 p.m. with the six stakes races, finishing with the Haskell just after 8 p.m. When racing continued, the heat index was still 105. The only “absolute” at Monmouth was they were going to cross their fingers and pray for luck.
Horse racing in general needs luck to survive much longer. It has been washed over by a tide of other gambling options for the betting public, and it has been rocked by scandal, and, as a bonus, it is a very hard game to beat. Television shows up for the major races -- the Triple Crown races, the big prep races, and the events tied to the Breeders’ Cup -- but the margins are getting narrower for the game.
When an outrage like the 30 horse deaths at Santa Anita since December takes place, the whole industry suffers a hit. Animal rights groups like PETA have legitimate arguments and those are increasingly being listened to by lawmakers.
“If even one horse collapses, Monmouth officials should be held criminally liable for cruelty,” Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of PETA, said before the races took place.
In the end, Monmouth got very lucky. The six stakes races went off smoothly despite the heat, and Maximum Security, probably the best 3-year-old in the country, won the Haskell to officially punch his ticket for the Breeders’ Cup in November. Max has been first under the wire in three Grade 1 races this year, counting the Kentucky Derby, where he was taken down on inquiry and placed 17th. He’s a big horse, and if he finishes off with wins at the Travers in Saratoga and the Classic at the Breeders’ Cup, he’s the runaway Horse of the Year.
So, it’s, like, a good thing he didn’t keel over.
NBC chose not to stick around and broadcast the delayed races, scuttling off to its regular programming, even on its junior varsity channels. The races were streamed on the network’s website, but it makes you wonder if there was a decision made to limit NBC’s exposure. If it were perceived the network pressured Monmouth to continue racing, and the worst took place, that wouldn’t have looked so good, either.
“It would have created additional momentum to the crisis that already exists because of the California problems. We’re on the cusp of a crisis in the industry,” Drazin said. “So, in this atmosphere we felt the important thing was to go overboard and … evaluate whether there was a basis for those concerns.”
If resuming racing with a heat index of 105 is going overboard for caution, I’d hate to see what they would have done had they stayed in the boat. In any case, they got away with it. The races took place, the straggle of fans who stuck it out made their way for the exits, and Sinatra serenaded them as they left.
The folks who run Monmouth could have lost it all to the summer wind on Saturday, but this is a betting enterprise, and they cashed instead. In the future, it would be best not to press their luck, however. The game is already facing daunting odds.