7:00 am, Saturday morning. It’s Memorial Day weekend, and it’s gorgeous. I meet up with Jessica Chapel of Railbird and Raceday 360; we stock up on bagels, coffee, and water; we jump in the car, and head south: Garden State Parkway, Jersey Shore, here we come.
A perusal of the car will yield no sunscreen, no bathing suits, no flip-flops. Instead, there’s a Daily Racing Form; some barn boots; notebooks, cameras, a laptop. We’re not off to the beach; we’re off to Monmouth Park.
An appointment on the backstretch pulls me to the East Coast version of the turf meeting the surf earlier in the season than usual, and I’m glad it does. It’s the first day of turf racing at Monmouth, the breezes are strong and salt-scented, and I feel as though I’m on vacation as I pull off Route 36.
The grounds at Monmouth feel like a resort, like a day at the beach. Jessica says, “If I lived closer, I’d be here every day.” The picnic areas are full, the barbecue areas are reserved; celebrating of all kinds resounds at the top of the stretch. The track is simply beautiful—the paddock is gorgeously landscaped and accessible, and the clubhouse and grandstand have an old-school simplicity that reminds me of Saratoga. Natural light streams through the buildings, and from a sheer sensory perspective, it is a beautiful place to spend the day.
Monmouth first opened in 1870, and recollections of its history are everywhere: in the many photographs throughout the track, and in the Hall of Champions on the first floor of the grandstand, where hang banners with the silks and names of the many wonderful horses who have raced at Monmouth over the years.
Jessica and I share a fascination with the signs, redolent of an earlier decade—the Fifties? The Sixties? Much about the place makes me think of The Flamingo Kid, that Brooklyn beach movie with Janet Jones (before she became Janet Gretzky) and Matt Dillon; even the bathrooms feel like cabanas, painted gleaming white, with sun streaming in the windows. How long, I wonder, has this radio been playing in the women’s room on the first floor of the clubhouse?
Monmouth offers a variety of seating options, from benches on the apron, to picnic tables, to clubhouse dining, to grandstand seats. The holiday weekend crowd stays close to the rail, eschewing the shaded, breezy areas upstairs.
An outdoor concession stand near the paddock offers grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, and better-than-usual racetrack beer; I eat my hot dog and drink my Smithwicks as I watch the horses file in for the first race, and I think, “This is the perfect place to be on Memorial Day Saturday.”
Brooklyn Backstretch friend Terri Pompay has horses in the first and second races; in the morning, I say hello to her on the backstretch and discover, to my delight, that the Gulfstream cat, Rasta, who adopted her over the winter, has journeyed north and taken up residence on the Monmouth backstretch. Rasta is joined by another cat whose barn had deserted him, and whom Terri has added to the Pompay menagerie. Her horses finish fourth and third, then she heads north to saddle Compliance Officer in the tenth at Belmont; she finishes second.
Just before workouts end, we are charmed by an energetic and playful colt getting a bath—at least until he tries to bite the hand that feeds him a peppermint. Robert Lyons brings us inside the shedrow, where we are introduced to stablemate Justify. She too is importunate when it comes to peppermints; after the first, she paws the ground, she stamps her foot, until another is forthcoming. “She’s racing at Belmont tomorrow,” we are told. So she is; in the fifth race on Sunday, she finishes fourth at nearly 28-1.
It’s mid-afternoon, and we’ve been here for nearly eight hours; reluctantly, we head north before the race card is finished. We regret missing the last few races, but only a little, because we know we’ll be back soon. Maybe even this weekend…