10/18/2007 11:00PM

Cup taps into Monmouth's rich history

Jim Raftery/Turfotos
Phil Iselin and Amory Haskell enjoy a day at Monmouth Park.
At first blush, the idea of taking an autumn extravaganza like the Breeders' Cup World Championships to a sleepy little summertime track near the New Jersey shore makes about as much sense as sending the show to Texas or Canada.

Racing fans have grown accustomed to a Breeders' Cup rotation that embraces the history-rich axis of New York, Kentucky, and California. Deviations are greeted with a head scratch and a skeptical sniff. Still, it would be a mistake to lump Monmouth Park in with the likes of such sites as Lone Star Park or Woodbine, both light on Breeders' Cup precedent. Monmouth Park, the jewel of New Jersey racing, has tradition to die for.

Visitors will get a healthy dose come Oct. 26 and 27, when the 23rd Breeders' Cup will be spread over two afternoons at Monmouth Park. Fans would be advised to seize the chance to explore the immediate environment, since very few racetracks can boast such a heady combination of American heritage and Thoroughbred racing lore.

"Monmouth Park is the reason we came to New Jersey," said native Marylander John Forbes, a five-time Monmouth training champion. "She is the grand lady of the game."

Monmouth Park gets its name from Monmouth County, one of four original counties that made up the American colony of New Jersey when it was first established in 1682.

The name Monmouth came from Col. Lewis Morris, a member of the colony's governing council, who purchased about 3,500 acres of estate land in 1676. He called his plantation Tintern, in memory of his family home in the British Isles in the southeastern Welsh county of Monmouthshire. Morris built an iron mill, stables, barns, a manor house, and quarters for both dependents and some 70 black slaves.

Monmouth County was busy making history long before major league Thoroughbred racing came along. On June 28, 1778, in one of the most important engagements of the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Monmouth (not far from the modern county seat of Freehold) pitted the men and artillery of Gen. George Washington against British regulars led by Gen. Charles Lee. The cannon fire was ferocious, adding to the oppressive heat of a withering summer day, and from that heat was born the legend of Mary Hays McCauly, wife of artillery officer William Hays.

McCauly took it upon herself to haul water from a nearby spring to the American soldiers on the firing line, soothing both throats and blistering guns. When her husband fell wounded, she picked up a rammer and manned a cannon until the British beat their retreat. For her actions, Gen. Washington commissioned her a sergeant, but she would always be known by the nickname she earned that day - Molly Pitcher.

Most of the battlefield has been preserved as part of a state park, and worth the visit. So is Seven Presidents Park, a popular seaside recreation destination just south of Monmouth Beach, at the end of State Highway 36, that is named for the succession of U.S. chief executives who made the seaside town of Long Branch their summer retreat.

The tradition began with Ulysses S. Grant, who was inaugurated as president in March of 1869 and soon after took a cottage on Ocean Avenue in Long Branch to escape the pressures of Washington. That same year, a partnership headed by a professional gambler named Col. John Chamberlain bought 128 acres just a few miles from Long Branch for $32,500, with the intention of building a racetrack.

The partnership fell through, but another group called the Long Branch and Seashore Improvement Company came along to rescue the project. On the Fourth of July, 1870, they were ready to lift the curtain on the new Monmouth Park. President Grant, an original box holder, was in attendance.

The opening was cause for regional celebration. Excursion ships carried what a newspaper described as "thousands" from Manhattan to Sandy Hook, after which they boarded trains for the track. One early review in a New York paper gave an unqualified rave:

"The grandstand was magnificent with the wonderful show of beauty and fashion," went the story. "The opening day purses and stakes were $31,000, an unusually large sum."

There also were the unavoidable snags that any public sporting spectacle tended to attract. The correspondent for "The Spirit of the Times" noted that "the attendance would have been much larger but for the stupidity and rapacity of the hackmen at the Branch [hotel] . . . who modestly asked twenty dollars for a ride of three miles. Above a thousand people stayed away from the races rather than submit to it."

By the end of the five-day meet, Monmouth Park had become a magnet for movers, shakers, and society swells. In fact, the $1,000 purse for the final race of the season was put up by the notorious William "Boss" Tweed of New York's Tammany Hall political machine.

After three booming years, Monmouth Park's business went into decline. This was blamed, in part, on a controversial decision in the 1873 Jersey Derby that allowed Tom Bowling to be declared the winner after a false start.

As it turned out, all the track needed was a sign that read, "Under new management." In 1878, Monmouth was purchased by a New York group that included David Withers, a widely respected racing official, and the Lorillard brothers, George and Pierre. Calling themselves the Monmouth Association, they pumped up the track with improvements. Purses became the largest in the land, and the meet was the longest, running through the end of August.

"Such success warranted expansion," observed the Long Branch edition of the American Guide Series, and so "the Monmouth Park Association bought for $100,000 the Casler and Field farms on the peninsula in the Shrewsbury River between Parker's Creek and the inlet at Oceanport."

A steel grandstand was built, with seating for 10,000, at a cost of $180,000. There were three tracks, 40 barns, and a railroad spur leading from the Oceanport station to the racetrack grounds. The grand opening was on the Fourth of July, 1890.

Modern-day Monmouth, 70 miles north of the entertainment mecca of Atlantic City, has attracted more than its share of celebrities through the years. Old Monmouth Park was no different. Among the notables who populated the racing crowd were Tammany's "Big Tim" Sullivan, actor De Wolf Hopper (known for his reading of "Casey at the Bat"), songstress Lily Langtry, and that most glitzy couple of the day, Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell.

Sadly, Monmouth Park turned out to be a victim of its own success. Fly-by-night rival tracks had been springing up in northern and western New Jersey with operations so shady that state government grew suspicious of the entire industry. In 1891, barely a year after the grand Monmouth reopening, racing was shut down through an obscure law that lumped betting booths and houses of prostitution under the same category.

Over the next three years, pro- and anti-racing forces pulled the New Jersey legislature back and forth, in a political battle that makes today's quest for the New York franchise look like a minor skirmish. In 1897, gambling abolitionists finally succeeded in passing an amendment to the New Jersey Constitution that banned any kind of betting or bookmaking. For the next half-century, major league horse racing in New Jersey was dead.

It was in the late 1930s that New Jersey sportsman and auto executive Amory L. Haskell began a campaign to lift the ban on parimutuel gambling. The time was ripe, since most states were looking for added revenue, and opposition was nowhere near as vigorous as it had been before the turn of the century. Haskell's intention was to resurrect Monmouth Park from the ashes of its glorious past.

The ban was lifted in 1939, but ensuing wartime restrictions on both building materials and travel made the development of a racetrack impractical until the Germans and the Japanese were out of the picture. It was not until June 19, 1946, after one postponement because of construction delays, that Haskell and his partners were open for business. The clubhouse was not completed, which meant the 18,724 fans had to get cozy in the grandstand. But never mind - Monmouth Park was back.

With the opening of both Monmouth and Atlantic City in 1946, joining Garden State Park, which opened in 1942, New Jersey had a first-class, May-October racing calendar.

In the 60 ensuing years, there have been a number of upheavals, including the burning of Garden State in 1977, the reopening of Garden State in 1985, and its final closing due to financial collapse in 2001. Night racing at the Meadowlands was added to the Thoroughbred mix in 1977, while the Atlantic City track grew more and more feeble with the legalization of casino gambling on the boardwalk. Through it all, Monmouth maintained a steadfast romance with its summertime franchise.

After 40 years of ownership, the Monmouth Park Jockey Club sold the track to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, a regulatory agency of the state government. For the last decade, Monmouth has been a member of a family of facilities that currently includes the Meadowlands Sports Complex (home of the NFL Giants and Jets, NBA Nets, NHL Devils, MSL Red Bulls, and the Seton Hall Pirates men's basketball team), the Wildwoods recreation and convention center, and the Atlantic City Convention Center. The NJSEA motto: "We Bring the World to New Jersey."

The 11-race Breeders' Cup program, spread out over Oct. 26 and 27, will certainly lure the racing world, filling the Monmouth Park barns like no other event in the history of the racetrack.

At the same time, Monmouth Park is no stranger to the very best of the breed. Over the past 60 years, many of the champions who roamed the eastern corridor found their way to Monmouth's most important events, among them the Sapling and the Sorority for 2-year-olds, the $1 million Haskell Invitational for 3-year-olds, the Molly Pitcher for fillies and mares, and the Philip Iselin Handicap for all comers.

In the last decade, the Monmouth stakes schedule has absorbed a number of the premier races formerly offered by the long-gone Garden State Park and the scaled-back Atlantic City, which is why the Jersey Derby, the United Nations Stakes, and the Matchmaker now make their permanent home in Oceanport.

The Horse of the Year for 2007 is almost certain to emerge from the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 27. And it will be, with little doubt, the greatest field of American racehorses to gather at Monmouth Park, featuring the older star Lawyer Ron against the hotshot 3-year-olds Street Sense, Curlin, Any Given Saturday, Hard Spun, and Tiago.

The Classic will have to be a spectacular event, though, to compete with the standards established by past runnings of what is now known as the Iselin Handicap. In a somewhat confusing shuffle of key names, the Iselin has also been known through the years as either the Monmouth Handicap or the Amory L. Haskell Handicap. Since 1985, however, when Roo Art and Bill Shoemaker shocked champions Precisionist and Lady's Secret, the race has honored the memory of the man who helped Amory Haskell build the track.

Phil Iselin was a New York garment industry magnate who owned the property next to the Oceanport land chosen by Haskell for Monmouth's rebirth. Iselin became the head of the track construction committee, served as treasurer and vice president of the Monmouth Park Jockey Club, and, upon the death of Haskell in 1966, became track president and chairman of the board.

The race that bears his name today has fallen in status to a Grade 3 ranking, even though Horse of the Year Ghostzapper used a victory in the 2004 Iselin to set the stage for subsequent victories in the Woodward Stakes and Breeders' Cup Classic. Ghostzapper's name fits well with the history of the race, for there have been a number of renewals that could have passed for Breeders' Cup Classics in their time.

o In August of 1960, two horses competed admirably at Monmouth Park in a three-day period. Note was taken, their names were jotted down, and local fans went on with their lives, after witnessing a 3-year-old named Kelso win his first added-money event with a seven-length score in the Choice Stakes on Aug. 3, and then on Aug. 6, watching the flying third-place finish of the 2-year-old Carry Back behind division leader Hail to Reason in the six-furlong Sapling.

Nearly two years later, both horses returned as royalty to meet in the 27th running of the Monmouth Handicap. Kelso reigned as 1960 and 1961 Horse of the Year while Carry Back won the 1961 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, along with a championship of his own.

The '62 Monmouth Handicap on July 14 offered a three-way rematch of Aqueduct's Suburban Handicap on the Fourth of July, when the speedy upstart Beau Purple defeated Kelso and Carry Back at 1 1/4 miles. Ten days later, those three reconvened at the Jersey Shore, with $109,150 on the line. This time it was Carry Back's turn to shine, packing 124 pounds to a track record of 2:00 2/5 under John Rotz, and beating runner-up Kelso, who carried 130 pounds, by three lengths. Beau Purple finished third.

o In 1964, Kelso was in the midst of his fifth consecutive campaign as American Horse of the Year when he tried for the second time to win the Monmouth Handicap. Kelso had to carry his familiar 130 pounds against Mongo (127), Olden Times (125), and Gun Bow (124), all of them after the winner's share of a $107,500 purse. Charles Hatton of Daily Racing Form was there:

"A crowd of 30,415, anticipating a battle of the giants, wended its way by motor, air, and boat to the hospitable shore course to see the sport," Hatton wrote. "Predictably enough, Gun Bow and Walter Blum darted to the front at the outset in a Quixotic plan of winning all the way. He led by several lengths up the backstretch, but on the last bend had to repulse a challenge lodged by Olden Times."

Olden Times cracked first and then Gun Bow as the blaze-faced Mongo hit the front inside the final furlong. Then came Kelso with his run, bringing those 30,415 to their feet, but Mongo held fast to win by a neck.

o Throughout the 1980 season, wherever Spectacular Bid ran became the focus of the sport. Beginning at Santa Anita, then Hollywood Park, and then an appearance at Arlington, the iron gray colt systematically dismantled the best available older male runners outside of New York. By the time he got to Monmouth Park, for the Aug. 16 running of the Amory L. Haskell Handicap, he had pretty much gone through them all.

It was therefore left up to a combative Canadian filly, Glorious Song, to give Spectacular Bid one last run for his money. She had already beaten males three times during the season - obviously she was not intimidated - and she was well-weighted for the Haskell, at 117 pounds to Spectacular Bid's 132. The crowd of 27,843 was not disappointed.

For some reason, Spectacular Bid and Bill Shoemaker lagged well back through the opening quarter, then commenced a steady move down the backstretch. Jorge Velasquez answered in kind with Glorious Song, and at one point, near the half, the filly and the colt actually made contact.

It was all business from there, however. Eyeball to eyeball at the head of the stretch, Spectacular Bid gradually eased away from Glorious Song to win by a gritty 1 3/4 lengths, getting the nine furlongs in 1:48.

"He was probably not at his best for the Haskell," wrote Joe Hirsch in Daily Racing Form, "but 'Bid' responded like a great horse."

o By the late 1980s, Monmouth fans had grown accustomed to the sight of the best older horses in America descending upon the summer meet to run in its marquee race, whatever it was being called at the time. Nashua, Bold Ruler, Sword Dancer, Bold Bidder, True Knight, Royal Glint, Majestic Light, Bates Motel - they all showed up and came through like champions, which is exactly what most of them were.

The 1988 running of the Iselin offered an added ingredient. Along with its prestige as a Grade 1 event and, at $500,000, its richest purse, the race came up a bona fide grudge match between champion Alysheba and local New Jersey hero Bet Twice.

After seven previous encounters spanning nearly two years, the two 4-year-old colts were close to dead even. In their most recent meeting, Bet Twice had won the 1988 Pimlico Special, with Alysheba finishing fourth. The real blood was drawn, though, as 3-year-olds in 1987, when Alysheba beat Bet Twice fair and square in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and Bet Twice defeated Alysheba in the Belmont Stakes and the Haskell.

The '88 Iselin also attracted Gulch and Slew City Slew, but they were left behind in the final furlong. That's when Alysheba and Chris McCarron took dead aim on Bet Twice's commanding lead and began to reel him in.

"Alysheba should have won the Haskell the year before," McCarron recently recalled. "I was trying to sneak through inside Lost Code and the door slammed shut, at about the five-sixteenths pole. I had to steer Alysheba outside Lost Code and Bet Twice, and I must have lost a good three-quarters of a length on the elbow of the turn." The margin at the wire was a neck.

McCarron is among a catalog of great riders who have been on display at Monmouth through the years. Hall of Famers Ted Atkinson, Johnny Adams, Walter Blum, Bill Hartack, Sam Boulmetis, and Steve Brooks took 12 of the first 17 local titles. Joe Bravo is the all-time Monmouth leader with 12 championships, while multiple titles also have been won by Jorge Velasquez, Chris Antley, Julie Krone, Don MacBeth, Rick Wilson, Craig Perret, and Vince Bracciale.

"The thing I really enjoyed about going to Monmouth Park all the time was that, at least when I was riding, there was never any bias," McCarron said. "Horses could win on the lead, on the fence, or coming down the middle of the track."

Horses like Alysheba, who caught Bet Twice in the closing yards of the Iselin to win by three-quarters of a length.

"That race was very satisfying," McCarron said. "A little bit of get-back. That was home turf for Bet Twice, and Jimmy was very, very well thought of at Monmouth."

He still is. Warren A. Croll, Jr., the man known as "Jimmy," has been identified with racing at Monmouth Park since the track was reborn in 1946. His name adorns banners, plaques, and photographs throughout the Monmouth plant, and even though he has retired from the daily chores of training, his name is still spoken with reverence and affection.

Croll, 81, lives with his wife, Bobbie, on the banks of the Navesink River in a quiet Monmouth Beach neighborhood, just a few miles from the Monmouth Park stable gate. His barn will be used to house Breeders' Cup runners.

"No, I don't mind," Croll said, then added with a laugh, "There's a plaque at one end of the barn about Bet Twice winning the Belmont, so I guess they'll know who's been there."

If the Croll karma rubs off on any of the Cup horses, pity the rest. Besides Bet Twice, the Croll shed row at Monmouth was home to Holy Bull, Mr. Prospector, Housebuster, Forward Gal, and Parka. Little wonder Croll is in the Hall of Fame.

"But you know, I couldn't even get stalls the first two years Monmouth Park ran," Croll recalled. "Guess I came a long way since then. But look at Monmouth! They've got a Breeders' Cup."