The Summer of ’74

On Saturday, Monmouth Park will present the 63rd running of the Sorority Stakes, a six furlong sprint for 2-year-old fillies that has been won over the years by some of the sport’s top competitors.

Perhaps the best filly to capture the Sorority – and unquestionably one of the greatest of all time – was Locust Hill Farm’s Ruffian, who set the racing world ablaze with her spine-tingling, stakes-record score 43 years ago.

Rufian sorority

Ruffian, after winning the Sorority Stakes.

Even though more than four decades have passed, I can still see Ruffian coming down the Monmouth homestretch. I was sitting in the Oceanport, N. J.’s open-air grandstand on that warm summer afternoon of July 27, 1974 with my grandfather Bill Kuligowski and Uncle Ziggy Worsch from Bayonne, a blue-collar city just a stone’s throw from downtown Manhattan.

When I reflect back, I realize it was the simple things at the racetrack that used to fascinate me, from the colorful tip sheets like Jack’s Little Green Card or Clocker Lawton, to the slim programs that didn’t yet contain past performances, to the sounds of the crowd that erupted into an ear-splitting fury as horses came down the stretch, and the voice of announcer Bob Weems as it echoed across the main track. My grandfather and Uncle Ziggy were men of few words, so when Ruffian shook off a pesky Hot N Nasty to win the Sorority, they left the superlatives to me, which I used quite liberally on the car ride back to Bayonne.

Much has been written about Ruffian’s storied career, and there is hardly anything I could add to express how much I loved her and how deeply I was affected by her death. When you are 15 years old, and have become an ardent fan of thoroughbred racing thanks to wonderful afternoons at Monmouth Park, you never think that tragedy can occur, but it did. And unfortunately, I was in attendance at Belmont Park for the Great Match that was Ruffian’s last race the following July.

But here I am, many moons later, still making the trip to Monmouth Park and still mourning, in my own way, the loss of that great filly. I deeply miss that time in my life: my grandfather, Uncle Ziggy, Bob Weems’s racecalls, reading the entries and results from the New York Daily News, summers spent in Bayonne. In my mind’s eye, I’m still 15 years old, and Ruffian is still running.

RuffianSororityMonmouth

Ruffian and jockey Jacinto Vasquez after winning the Sorority.

Ruffian Mth-1

Ruffian Mth-2

 

 

Advertisements

Harness Racing, old and new

Since the Breeders’ Cup went into the history books in early November, my daughter Katie and I decided to spice things up a bit and take a tour of two harness ovals in the Mid-Atlantic region – Freehold Raceway in Monmouth County, N. J., and Harrah’s Philadelphia, in Delaware County, Pa.

It had been several years since we ventured to Freehold, the oldest racetrack in America, having conducted harness racing at the location (at first informally) since the 1830’s. The contrast could not be more pronounced when compared to Harrah’s Philadelphia, constructed only 10 years ago, and only then in response to the new casino law in Pennsylvania, which required companies to construct both a casino and a racetrack if they wanted a gambling license.

Freehold’s purses are extremely small when compared to the big slots-infused pots offered at Harrah’s. Katie and I visited Freehold on Nov. 12, and the top purse was about $5,100, as compared to Harrah’s top pot being $25,000 when we were there on Nov. 20. As a result, Harrah’s attracts big-name drivers like Tim Tetrick, David Miller, and Yannick Gingras, who tend to “follow the money.”

But despite the better quality of racing at Harrah’s, the ambiance at Freehold was much more attractive, almost with an old fashioned, homey feel. The crowd was comprised largely of retirees, but there was a fair amount of children and young adults, too. Harrah’s audience was more of a scruffier, working-class group, with no children in sight.

Harrah’s location on the Delaware River waterfront is supposed to be one of its selling points, but the track itself is utilitarian, and appearing as if it were hastily constructed in order to get the slot machines ringing. The infield is devoid of any landscaping save scrubby grass, the tote board is minimal, and while you can see the river in the distance, you can also see towering cranes with shipping containers for ocean-going ships looming beyond the far turn.

An old white horse, used by the lone outrider, shuffled down the track, across the infield, and back up towards the winner’s circle after every race. As the winds were extremely cold and blustery, it was hard not to feel sorry for the sad ‘ole guy. And in the parking garage, a disturbing sight was the barbed wire ringing the walls of SCI Chester, a state prison, situated just steps from the Harrah’s property.

In contrast, Freehold’s infield was nicely landscaped and the glass-enclosed grandstand held plenty of seats to watch the races. To see the races at Harrah’s, you needed to step outside onto a concrete “balcony,” replete with plastic chairs and a few tables, while down the steps were molded plastic seats permanently attached to the concrete. The winner’s circle was oddly situated at the far end of the first turn.

All in all, we had fun at both venues, but left Harrah’s with a much less favorable impression than that of Freehold. We’re still deciding which track to visit next.

Here are some photos from Freehold and Harrah’s. All photos were taken by me unless otherwise noted:

f-3

 Freehold’s nicely landscaped infield, as seen from the glass-enclosed grandstand.

 

f-1

Afternoon sun shines into the Freehold grandstand.

 

f2

Rockrockwhosthere, winner of the 3rd race.

 

f-4

Typical scene on Freehold’s second floor in the grandstand.

 

outside-freehold

Outside, street view.

 

old-freehold

The original Freehold Raceway, before the fire razed the grandstand. From an old postcard.

 

freehold-fire

May 4, 1984 – an electrical short in an odds board causes this massive blaze, destroying Freehold’s original grandstand and clubhouse. Courtesy Freehold Fire Dept.

 

harrahs-view

Note the first turn at Harrah’s as it curves across the Delaware River.

 

Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack

The coral-colored buildings behind the Harrah’s grandstand is part of a correctional facility in Chester, Pa.

 

hp-3

You can see the Delaware River in the backdrop at Harrah’s.

 

h-1

Down the stretch at Harrah’s, with the shipping cranes and containers in the background.

 

h-5

The old white outrider horse, heading back towards the winner’s circle for a drink on a cold day.

 

h-6

Utilitarian tote board and signage can be seen as a pacer warms up at Harrah’s.

 

h-2

The simulcast area at Harrah’s has a horse racing theme.

 

AC high roller had deep ties to Trump, horse racing, the Mob

trump

Robert LiButti, top left, and Donald Trump/Yahoo News

Before he became the Republican Presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump had a controversial history as an Atlantic City casino owner. That history included catering to a high roller with Mob ties, as well as ties to thoroughbred racing.

According to Robert Cay Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has been covering Trump for decades and recently published the eye-opening book, “The Making of Donald Trump,” (http://amzn.to/2cOLaw3) (Editor’s Note: Recommended reading before casting your ballot in November), Trump had a long relationship with reputed New Jersey mobster-affiliated Robert LiButti, who gambled millions of dollars at Trump’s Atlantic City casinos, flew on Trump’s helicopter, and partied on his yacht in the late 1980’s.

Johnson also writes that Trump tried to bed LiButti’s daughter, Edith, and that he lavished gifts on Robert LiButti to encourage him to keep gambling at the Trump Plaza.

LiButti was eventually banned in 1991 from all of the NJ casinos for his connection to the late Mafia boss John Gotti and the Gambino crime family.

That same year, Trump first faced questions about his dealings with LiButti after NJ state regulators launched an investigation into allegations by nine employees of the Trump Plaza, according to an investigative piece by Michael Isikoff of Yahoo! News (http://yhoo.it/2cs9VJW). The employees claimed that the hotel had repeatedly removed African-Americans and women from craps tables after LiButti, one of the highest-rolling gamblers in Atlantic City’s history, loudly complained about their presence when he was playing.

The probe resulted in a $200,000 fine against the Trump Plaza by the NJ Casino Control Commission for violating state anti-discrimination laws, and a $450,000 fine for gifting LiButti three Ferraris, three Rolls-Royces, a Mercedes and two Bentleys, but Trump has stated he barely knew LiButti, and would not be able to identify him in a two-man lineup.

LiButti, who died in 2014, was referred to as a “self-employed thoroughbred race horse broker” in his obituary that appeared in the Jersey Journal (http://bit.ly/2cTMEB1). But his tentacles in racing reached to the highest levels of the sport.

LiButti had been barred from racing in 1968 because of his underworld ties. In 1971 it was discovered that he was the true owner of prominent 3-year-old Jim French, after questions about the colt’s ownership prevented him from running in the Travers Stakes (and he was subsequently impounded by the Saratoga County sheriff’s office). The U. S. House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Crime had also launched an investigation of his hidden ownership of Jim French.

horse_jim_french-big

Jim French/NYRA photo

He also pleaded guilty to income tax evasion for filing a return in 1971 under the alias Ralph Libutti, but failed to file a separate return for more than $750,000 worth of horse deals he conducted in 1970, under the name Bob Presti.

Later, it was found that LiButti was doing business with Calumet Farm head J. T. Lundy, buying stallion seasons and horses for the farm’s associates and clients to the tune of about $5 million.

In the mid-1990’s, the Grade 1-winning handicap horse Devil His Due, who ran under the name of Edith LiButti’s Lion Crest Stable, was the subject of a long battle with the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS slapped a levy on the horse, saying it was really owned by Ralph LiButti. It was part of an ongoing effort to collect over $4 million in unpaid income taxes.

horse_devil_his_due-_3big

Devil His Due winning at Belmont Park/NYRA photo

Robert LiButti eventually served five years in prison for tax evasion and bank fraud.

And Trump … well, he’s moved on to bigger and better things. Edith Libutti now says she’ll vote for him.

libutti-at-monmouth

Edith LiButti at Monmouth Park 2015/NY Daily News

Further reading:

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/donald-trump-attempt-court-mobster-daughter-didn-article-1.2732403

 

https://www.ravellaw.com/opinions/3b351e9d3c87f2d3ec06df573afb2988

 

http://articles.philly.com/1992-10-30/news/25996742_1_casino-records-bank-fraud-gambling

 

http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/downashore/Trump-ties-to-mobster-racist-casino-policies-resurface-in-new-report.html

 

http://www.newsmax.com/Newsfront/robert-libutti-donald-trump-gangster-edith-creamer/2016/03/07/id/717840/

 

 

 

 

 

In Pennsylvania, high takeout hurts handle

Parx Sunday

There are plenty of things wrong with horse racing in Pennsylvania, but at the top of the list has to be the state’s onerous takeout rates on exotic wagers, which discourages betting and has been a contributing factor to overall pari-mutuel handle decline for the last 15 years.

Despite benefiting from expanded gaming revenues, Pennsylvania’s thoroughbred racetracks have experienced a precipitous slide in handle, as the 2015 Annual Report issued by the Pennsylvania Racing Commission in July (http://www.agriculture.pa.gov/Protect/RacingCommission/Documents/2015%20Racing%20Annual%20Report.pdf), shows. In 2001, more than $1.46 billion was wagered on races in the state. In 2014, that number had declined to $427.5 million – a whopping 71 percent decrease. Similarly, the state’s share of tax revenues from those wagers decreased 65 percent over the same period, from $31.8 million in 2001 to a little more than $11 million in 2014. No doubt high takeout has played a big part in this negative trend.

Other tracks have recognized that high takeout negatively impacts their bottom line. Over the last several years, Tampa Bay Downs reduced takeout and handle ticked upward, while the Monmouth-at-Meadowlands all-turf meet, which starts September 28,  will offer an across-the-board takeout rate of just 15 percent, the lowest takeout in the nation.

“You hear over and over again that fans want big fields, low takeout, and competitive racing, and that’s what we’re set to offer,” said Dennis Drazin, advisor to Darby Development LLC, operators of the Monmouth-at-Meadowlands meet.

According to Jeff Platt, president of the Horseplayers Association of North America (HANA), a grassroots organization committed to giving horseplayers a voice and which hopes to effect change in the industry: “Lower takeout translates into more situations worthy of our betting dollar. Higher takeout translates into fewer situations worthy of our betting dollar. The more situations where we find value, the more situations we bet. It’s as simple as that.”

Each year, HANA publishes ratings of 62 thoroughbred racetracks, and it’s no surprise that the three Pennsylvania rank near the bottom. Two of them have the highest takeout rates in the country for certain exotic wagers. Here’s the link: http://www.horseplayersassociation.org/2016Sortable.html

Of the tracks listed in HANA’s 2016 ratings, Presque Isle Downs in Erie ranked 38th, Parx Racing in Bensalem ranked 46th, and Penn National in Grantville ranked 48th.

The top five spots were filled by (in order) Kentucky Downs, Keeneland, Saratoga, Suffolk Downs and Tampa Bay Downs.

Tracks are ranked according to takeout rates for simple wagers like win, place and show, as well as exotic wagers like the Pick 3, Pick 4 and Pick 6.

Also included for each track is average field size, a simulcast signal distribution grade (from A to F), the average pari-mutuel pool per race, exotic pool per race, and handle trend (up or down).

Using Kentucky Downs, HANA’s top-ranked track, as an example, we find that its WPS takeout is 16.00; exacta takeout 18.25; trifecta, superfecta, Daily Double, Pick 3, Pick 4 and Pick 6 19.00, and Pick 5 14.00.

Average field size in 2015 (the 2016 meet was not yet complete as of this writing) at Kentucky Downs was 10.60 horses per race, while mutuel pool per race was $118,626, exotic pool per race was $232,143, and handle trend was positive, at +6.46%. Year after year, the Franklin, Ky. course has shown healthy handle increases, thanks to its product and takeout rates proving extremely attractive to handicappers.

The only negative for Kentucky Downs was its signal distribution grade, which was given an “F.” According to HANA, that means a very high signal fee and/or multiple restrictions.

Let’s take a peek at how the three Pennsylvania tracks measured up against Kentucky Downs:

PRESQUE ISLE: WPS takeout: 17.00; exacta 20.00; trifecta and superfecta 25.00; Daily Double 20.00, and Pick 3 Pick 4 and Pick 6 25.00. Presque Isle’s average field size in 2015 was 7.49, while mutuel pool per race was an anemic $28,117, exotic pool per race was $53,558, and handle trend was down at -0.73%. Signal distribution grade was a “B,” meaning a moderate signal fee and/or restrictions.

PARX RACING: WPS takeout: 17.00; exacta 20.00; trifecta and superfecta 30.00; Daily Double 20.00, and Pick 3 Pick 4 and Pick 6 26.00. Parx’s average field size in 2015 was 7.94, while mutuel pool per race was $51,429, exotic pool per race was $102,980, and handle trend was down at -0.70%. Signal distribution grade was a “B.”

It should be noted that Parx’s takeout rates for the superfecta and Pick 6 were the highest on the 62-track list.

PENN NATIONAL: WPS takeout: 17.00; exacta 20.00; trifecta 31.00, superfecta 30.00; Daily Double 20.00, and Pick 3 Pick 4 and Pick 5 25.00. Presque Isle’s average field size in 2015 was 7.50, while mutuel pool per race was $41,719, exotic pool per race was $77,530, and handle trend was up at +2.15%. Signal distribution grade was a “B.”

Penn National’s takeout rate for trifectas was the highest on the 62-track list.

“To those who think takeout doesn’t matter – think again,” wrote Platt on the HANA website. “Takeout matters – on both sides of the window. To the player, takeout determines odds and payoffs. In every wagering situation, lower takeout means higher payoffs. Conversely, higher takeout means lower payoffs.”

Pennsylvania regulators would do well to heed those words.

 

 

 

 

Happy birthday, Big M!

Postcard Big M

Forty years ago today, the sparkling new Meadowlands Racetrack opened its doors for the first time. To celebrate the Big M’s birthday, here’s an excerpt from “The Golden Age of New Jersey Horse Racing,” which describes that first night:

After countless acres of marshland were filled and the final touches were put on the buildings, roads and parking lots, the Meadowlands Racetrack became the first venue of the planned sports complex to open, on September 1, 1976, for harness racing. Although it started as the brainchild of Gov. William Cahill, by the time it came to fruition it was under the administration of Gov. Brendan Byrne. The first card drew a capacity crowd of 42,133 for its initial date; the season would run 102 nights through December 31. Gov. Byrne, Meadowlands chairman David “Sonny” Werblin and members of the N. J. Racing Commission climbed into horse-drawn carriages for a ceremonial ride around the track flanked by drivers in sulkies. The great Rambling Willie took the opening night feature in 1:55.30. Proceeds from the operation was earmarked for bonds, expiring in 2009, which would cover everything to come. Opening-night take: $2,448,855. The operation had to attract only 11,000 fans a night, Werblin said, to pay off the bonds.

Overhead Big M

“The Meadowlands joins the Money Derby tonight … New Jersey’s new mile track opens the newest betting windows with 10 harness races that will attract such driving celebrities as Billy Haughton, Stanley Dancer, Joe O’Brien, Herve Filion, Buddy Gilmour and Ben Webster,” the New York Post reported. “Sonny Werblin, once involved with Monmouth and the Jets, has been the architect of the $340 million sports complex that will house harness racing, thoroughbred racing and the football Giants to start. It all begins with an 8 p.m. post in a plant that has 10,000 seats, can accommodate 35,000 people and 20,000 cars and some day will look a lot better when all the work is done.”[1]

The Meadowlands gave fans a plush, almost casino-like environment in which to watch and wager the ponies. It featured 352 pari-mutuel windows and 1,200 color monitors throughout the facility. Both the track and the football stadium had computerized boards that could flash messages and show live races and instant replays. The board at the track was 40-feet wide and allowed bettors to watch the action from every pole of the one-mile oval. At the very top of the grandstand was the Pegasus, a series of elegant dining rooms, with its own glass elevator riding up the side of the clubhouse, marble floors, brass fixtures, polished wood, recessed video monitors and old racing prints lining the walls. The Grandstand level contained the owners’ boxes, while the Clubhouse level was home to the Club Teletheater, a private betting and handicapping room.

Big M grandstand

That first season, Werblin crafted the Meadowlands into the nation’s most successful harness track, although he did so at a high personal cost. To emphasize the point, he staged the $425,000 Meadowlands Pace, the richest standardbred or thoroughbred race ever held in the United States. Held on a Tuesday night, typically not one of the best days to attract a big crowd, the Pace nonetheless drew 30,493 patrons, who bet more than $3.1 million. The stress of building the track and complex took its physical toll, however, with Werblin suffering a heart attack and several bouts of pneumonia and exhaustion throughout the process.

[1] “Meadowlands Joins Money Derby Tonight,” New York Post, Sept. 1, 1976. http://nypost.com/2001/09/01/new-york-post-from-sept-1-1976/ Accessed July 28, 2015.

Read more about the history of the sport in “The Golden Age of New Jersey Horse Racing,” by Linda Dougherty, available in print and e-book at Amazon.com: http://a.co/6VyyHKo

3D Golden Age (1)

The death of Amory L. Haskell

Twenty years after the first horses sprang from the gate at the new Monmouth Park, its guiding force, Amory L. Haskell, died of a heart attack in a New York City hospital on April 12, 1966, at the age of 72.

Haskell had been ailing for many months, and prior to his death had been hospitalized in Palm Beach, Fla. with a leg infection. He left behind his second wife, Blanche Angell Smith, whom he married in 1959; her daughter, Cynthia Smith, and four daughters and a son from his first marriage to Annette Tilford: Amory L. Haskell, Jr., Mrs. Alejandro DeTomaso, Mrs. John C. Ellis, Mrs. Edward B. Ross, and Mrs. Charles H. Jones.

Upon learning of Haskell’s death, the tributes poured in from people in the sporting, political and social worlds.

“A distinguished citizen,” said N. J. Gov. Richard J. Hughes, “who has excelled in so many endeavors and whose contributions in many areas of public life will serve as a lasting and fitting tribute, and who was respected and admired by many.”

Monmouth County Republican Chairman J. Russell Woolley said Haskell was “faithful and reasonable, not obstinate in his ways. He was dedicated to high standards, generally interested in the public good. He will be missed in many ways, not just by the Republican party, but by the community.”

“His speeches were few; his appearances at party functions were frequent but his custom was to take a bow and leave the spotlight to others in whom his confidence was well known,” wrote Charles A. Johnston in the Red Bank Register. “His format for political participation was copied closely at Monmouth Park and among his neighbors at Woodland Farm.”

Amory Haskell at Monmouth Park
Photo By Turfotos
Amory L. Haskell/Photo courtesy of Monmouth Park

Haskell’s graciousness and hospitality were recalled when, in 1965, he played host to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Mrs. Eisenhower at Monmouth Park. His obituary in the Red Bank Register called it “perhaps his greatest hour at the track.”

He was remembered for the establishment and growth of the Monmouth Park Charity Ball, which aided county welfare and health associations; as a good golfer, particularly at the Rumson Country Club, and as well as a boater, having owned a huge craft in the ketch-yawl class that was anchored in the Navesink River.

He had memberships in many sporting clubs and associations, including The Jockey Club, the Thoroughbred Breeders Association of New Jersey, the Master of Foxhounds Association, the Irish Wolfhounds Club of America, the Canadian Hackney Horse Association, and the Rose Tree Fox Hunting Club.

Jim and Haskell

Amory L. Haskell, right, with Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, center, 1963/Photo courtesy of Monmouth Park

 

Funeral services for Haskell were held at the St. George’s-by-the-River Episcopal Church in Rumson, and he was buried on his Woodland Farms estate.

In “The Register’s Opinion” editorial published in the Red Bank Register on April 14, 1966, the following was written about Haskell:

Amory L. Haskell – sportsman, political figure, multimillionaire, humanitarian. Mr. Haskell was truly a giant among men – and his achievements, his power, and his prestige made him one of the most influential men in the country, the state, and indeed, in many areas of the country.

            (He) will be best remembered as the first and only president of the Monmouth Park Jockey Club. And it was largely through his efforts that the Oceanport racetrack became one of the finest in the nation … he always will have a special place in the history of Monmouth County. And his accomplishments will best tell his story today and in the years to come.”

Two years after his death, in 1968, the Monmouth Park directors honored his memory with the Amory L. Haskell Handicap, a race for 3-year-olds. Now called the Haskell Invitational Handicap, it is an important Grade 1 race for sophomores, and many have used it en route to year-end honors.

From the book, “The Golden Age of New Jersey Horse Racing,” by the author, available on Amazon.com.

3D Golden Age (1)

 

 

Another Opening Day in Oceanport

Opening day at Monmouth Park has always been a special occasion, and this year was no different. Cool weather, a steady breeze, and a sizable crowd all added up to a fun afternoon at the circa-1946 Oceanport oval. What follows is a photo tour of Monmouth from yesterday and through the years:

Mth backstretch 1949

A backstretch scene from 1949, from an old postcard (no copyright). Notice the way grooms dressed to care for their charges.

Aerial photo of Monmouth Park from the 1950's.

Aerial photo of Monmouth Park from the 1950’s.

Mth August 1957

Another aerial photo from 1957. Both aerials courtesy of Equiphoto.

MonmouthPark_109

Jockey Eddie Arcaro (L) makes his way back from the track with his valet at Monmouth Park in the 1950’s. Photo By Turfotos/Jim Raftery.

Monmouth cafeteria 1980

The old cafeteria, circa 1980. From the author’s collection.

Mth 7

Sand sculpture of American Pharoah, greeting guests on May 14, 2016 as they passed through the turnstiles.

Mth 1

Waiting for the first race of the season, May 14, 2016.

Mth 2

Freshly-spread wood chips gave off a wonderful aroma prior to the 1st race of 2016.

Mth 5

The Monmouth infield has seen many changes over the years, but it’s still pleasing to the eye.

Mth 3

The old curlicue hedges in the infield are long gone, but the grass is still green.

Mth 4

The Picnic Area seems to get larger every year, and fans still fill it. The apron now has a BYOB area.

Mth 6

This used to be the best place to find a reasonably-priced draft beer. The price has gone up for 2016.

Mth 8

After the races, head on over to the Sitting Duck on Myrtle Avenue for dinner and some brewskis.

Mth 9

The dinner specials at the Sitting Duck are plentiful, and so are the portion sizes. These are the Tuscany-crusted pork chops.

3D Golden Age (1)