Monmouth Park to open thoroughbred meet with fans

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With the opening of the thoroughbred season at Monmouth Park days away, chief executive Dennis Drazin knows the odds are against the track making a profit.

The coronavirus pandemic has idled the New Jersey shore facility for almost two months while officials in the hard-hit state waited for the risks from COVID-19 to subside. The track reduced the scheduled 56-day meet to 37 dates.

With no racing, there is no money.

The wait ends Friday. Monmouth Park is starting off with an unexpected daily double. It will have both racing and people in attendance, a rarity at major horse racing tracks around the country.

New York held the Belmont Stakes on June 20 without fans. California and Maryland are not allowing fans. Florida is doing it on a limited basis. Officials at Churchill Downs in Kentucky plan to allow a limited number of fans for the Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5 in the rejiggered Triple Crown schedule.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy cleared the way for fans to attend less than two weeks ago.

“It’s been a struggle getting here and I kind of refused to give up,” Drazin said this week in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “Our CFO said it would be tough to get to opening day. There was no hesitation in my saying: `We are not closing, we are going to run a meet this year. We’re going to do the best we can.”‘

This won’t be your average day at the races.

Fans entering the facility will have their temperatures taken and be asked about potential contact with people infected with the coronavirus. Once inside, they will have to wear masks and practice social distancing.

Track capacity has been limited to 25%, which is roughly 15,000 fans.

Don’t expect that many. The track averaged 9,129 fans last year. Its single-day record is 60,983 in 2015 when Triple Crown winner American Pharoah raced in the Haskell Invitational.

Drazin has walked around the track’s 300 acres in recent weeks and said the track can reasonably handle 15,000 fans. Social distancing will be enforced.

“If we don’t enforce the rules, shame on us,” said Drazin, chairman and CEO of Darby Development LLC, which operates the track. “Then the governor is going to say: `I gave you guys the opportunity to have fans there and you ignored my rules, now I am rolling that back.’ We don’t want that.”

Murphy on Monday scrapped plans to allow for limited indoor dining over concerns about the virus.

Admission and parking at the track will be free. Unlike last year, fans cannot bring food and alcohol. Concession stands will be open. Dining is only permitted outdoors with social distancing.

Drazin said the track’s top concern is protecting its customers. Medical personnel will monitor temperatures and social screening. Extra workers will be there to make sure counters are cleaned and betting screens are sanitized frequently. Plexiglass windows have been placed in front of the betting tellers.

“People want to feel more comfortable,” Drazin said. “I feel people feel safer the more you do.”

Still, he admits the system is not fail-safe.

The highlight of the meet will be the running of the Haskell for 3-year-olds on July 17. Some colts and fillies will use the 1 1/8 mile race as a prep for the Kentucky Derby.

Tiz the Law, who won the Belmont Stakes in front of eerily empty grandstands, won’t be in the race. The New York-bred colt will race in the Travers at Saratoga next month.

That could be good for the Haskell. It will create a more wide-open race, which could attract a big field.

Drazin said the track will offer the same average in daily purses, and he is hopeful it attracts good fields for a meet that runs through Sept. 27. Racing will be held on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

“I don’t think we are making a lot of money this year,” Drazin said. “I don’t think you are going to see a profit this year. If we could break even, I would be ecstatic.”

Drazin’s hopes for a perfect season would be big fields, no horses being injured and everyone staying healthy. He wants to get through this crisis.

“Everything else you can fix down the road,” he said.

Pegasus races planned for Gulfstream and Santa Anita in 2024

Horse racing on Opening day of the winter-spring meet at Santa Anita Park.
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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – After seven Pegasus World Cup events, it’s evidently time for change.

1/ST Racing, which has hosted the entirety of the Pegasus series to this point at Gulfstream Park, is planning for two Pegasus days in 2024 – one at Gulfstream and the other at Santa Anita. Details aren’t finalized and it’s unclear how it would fit in the racing calendar, but 1/ST is planning for both dirt and turf Pegasus races as part of the Santa Anita program.

Gulfstream played host to the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational on the dirt Saturday, along with the $1 million Pegasus Turf and the $500,000 Pegasus Filly and Mare Turf.

“I’d really love to see that we bring it to the West Coast,” 1/ST President and CEO Belinda Stronach said. “That will probably happen in 2024. What we did this year for 2023 was said, `OK, we have a number of great race days, let’s coordinate those better and call it the 1/ST Racing Tour and recognize great achievements within our own footprint.”

Saturday marked the first stop on that new 1/ST Racing Tour. Along with some of the biggest race days at 1/ST tracks – like Florida Derby day at Gulfstream on April 1, Santa Anita Derby day on April 8 and the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on May 20 – there are a pair of days where the tour will be running simultaneously.

This coming Saturday, Gulfstream will play host to the Holy Bull while Santa Anita has the Robert B. Lewis – both of them Kentucky Derby prep races.

And on March 4, Gulfstream has the Fountain of Youth, another major Derby prep, while San Anita has the Big Cap. Plans call for coordinated post times at those two tracks on those days to provide the best racing action every 20 minutes, as well as some unique betting options.

“We can never rest on our laurels,” Stronach said. “We have to keep moving forward. We have a great team that’s really committed.”

The main Pegasus race is one of the biggest-paying races in North America. Art Collector claimed about $1.8 million from a $3 million purse with his win on Saturday. In 2022, only the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic and $4 million Breeders’ Cup Turf featured bigger prizes among U.S. races, and the $3 million Pegasus purse is equal to the one offered last year at the Kentucky Derby.

Regardless of what happens with the Santa Anita plan for future Pegasus events, Stronach insisted Gulfstream will continue having Pegasus days. There has even been talk about Gulfstream playing host to Breeders’ Cup races again, something that hasn’t happened since 1999.

“This is staying here in Miami,” Stronach said. “Pegasus has a home here in Miami. We can’t move Pegasus from Miami. We have great partners here and it’s more than just a day now. We have deep roots here in Miami.”

Arabian Knight earns Baffert record 6th win in Southwest

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Arabian Knight won the $750,000 Southwest Stakes by 5 1/2 lengths at Oaklawn, giving Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert his record sixth victory in the race.

The colt came into the Kentucky Derby prep as one of the most highly touted 3-year-olds in the country. Arabian Knight, who was purchased for $2.3 million as a 2-year-old, was making his second career start and first on a sloppy track in front of 27,000 fans in Arkansas.

“These good horses are hard to come by,” said Baffert, who was on hand in Hot Springs. “We’ve had a lot of luck here at Oaklawn, so it was nice to have a horse like this.”

However, Arabian Knight was ineligible to earn the Kentucky Derby qualifying points awarded to the winner because Baffert has been suspended for two years by Churchill Downs Inc. The penalty, which ends shortly after this year’s Derby on May 6, stems from Medina Spirit’s medication violation after the colt won the 2021 Derby and was later disqualified. Baffert is challenging the ban in court.

Ridden by John Velazquez, Arabian Knight ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:43.50 and paid $2.80 to win. He is 2-0 and has career earnings of $544,275.

“He ran 1:43 and change, that’s racehorse time and he did it without taking a deep breath,” Baffert said. “This was a big effort.”

Red Route One closed from last to finish second, and Frosted Departure was third. Sun Thunder was fourth, followed by Jace’s Road, Corona Bolt, El Tomate and Western Ghent.

At Gulfstream in Florida, Baffert’s entry Defunded finished second in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup, beaten by 4 1/2 lengths by Art Collector on Saturday.