Now, that was one wild, wacky day of horseracing. So many profound scenes were played out Aug. 5 at Monmouth Park, the surge of electricity they generated will keep the old gal rocking for many years to come.
A record crowd of 47,127 was abuzz all afternoon, awaiting the appearance of the mighty Point Given in the Haskell Invitational Handicap (gr. I). With an increase of $500,000, the Haskell's purse soared to a record $1.5 million. Then there was the presence of acting New Jersey governor Donald DiFrancesco, who signed the state's crucial off-track betting bill right there at the track. It appeared as if the final scene of this perfectly scripted play was Point Given's gutsy half-length victory, topped off by a rousing ovation by the huge crowd upon his return. But there still was more to come, as an unexpected soap opera played out following the race involving jockey Gary Stevens and trainer Bob Baffert that was so bizarre it at first seemed surreal.
Let's start at the beginning. Even before the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), Monmouth Park officials put on their marketing hats and sent out complimentary breakfast baskets to the trainer and stable help of each of the Derby starters, just to remind them about the yellow brick road that leads to the Emerald City of the Jersey Shore. Awaiting them there would be possible fame and riches, warm hospitality, ocean breezes, and the best crab cakes north of Maryland.
Then came the first spark of hope. When Point Given annihilated his field in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), Monmouth vice president and general manager Bob Kulina talked to Baffert, who told him he was interested if he could get the colt ready in time. Kulina went to the horsemen, and suggested using $500,000 from the purse supplement they received from the state this year to raise the Haskell purse if either Point Given or Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos ran. Monarchos soon bowed out with an injury, leaving "The Big Red Train" as the sport's only major sell.
"With the governor signing the OTB bill on Haskell Day, the horsemen wanted me to use the money if that would make the difference in getting Point Given," Kulina said. "They didn't want to see us miss out because we weren't aggressive enough. So I threw it out on the table for Bob."
Point Given, meanwhile, had lost 10 days of training to allow his cracked heels to mend, and Baffert would have to run him in a "thin" bar shoe. He mentioned Monmouth's deal to Dick Mulhall, racing and breeding manager for Prince Ahmed Salman's The Thoroughbred Corp., and he was for it. Baffert, however, told him, "I've got to train on him a little harder to get him ready."
Finally, on Aug. 2, three days before the Haskell, a small Sallee van arrived on the Monmouth backstretch at 5:15 p.m. Down the ramp walked 1,200 pounds of glistening red muscle. Point Given gave a little look around, then strolled calmly into Barn 15. Slightly unnerved by his new surroundings, he gave a feeble attempt to rear up. Assistant trainer Jim Barnes took the lip chain and placed it between Point Given's lip and gums and said to the wild-eyed colt, "You are a monster today."
To the rest of the racing world, Point Given is a monster every day, and taking him on is not something they are too thrilled about. Some of the connections of his Haskell opponents were realistic and hopeful that they could just get a piece of the big purse. "I realize we're running against Goliath," said John Adger, racing and breeding manager for This Fleet is Due's owner, Stonerside Stable. "But maybe David will show up that day."
Tony Dutrow, trainer of Burning Roma, was well aware what he was going to be up against. "When I walk in the paddock to saddle Burning Roma and see Baffert and Point Given, I'll be more intimidated than my horse," he said.
Monmouth's awesome run of good luck continued on Haskell Day, as an early fog lifted, revealing bright blue skies. Then the people came, like they never came before, shattering the attendance record set in 1962. And the governor came, pen in hand. And actor Joe Pesci was there to present the trophy for an earlier stakes. The smile on Kulina's face remained frozen for the entire afternoon.
After the ninth race came the announcement on the backstretch that post time for the race preceding the Haskell was in five minutes. Barnes, exercise rider Larry Damore, and groom Roberto Luna led Point Given from the barn and headed toward the track, as onlookers gazed at the big chestnut. By the time he reached the paddock, the tote board read 1-5 in the six-horse field. He would close at 3-10, with Hero's Tribute 6-1 and Burning Roma 7-1. As he strode majestically into the paddock amidst the cheers of the crowd, a voice could be heard, saying, "Every time I see this horse, he sends chills up and down my spine."
Several minutes before post, Baffert realized he had neglected to remind Stevens to make sure he kept his whip in his left hand turning for home, a point the two had gone over many times in the past. Baffert turned to a member of the Monmouth publicity staff who was watching from his box and asked him, "How do I call the gate? I want them to tell (Stevens) to have his whip in his left hand turning for home."
The staff member thought he was kidding, waiting for Baffert to break into a smile, exposing the joke. But when he realized he was serious, he notified Kulina, who was standing nearby. Kulina told Baffert he'd have to call the stewards, that they'd have a walkie-talkie and could relay the message to the outrider. So, Kulina called the stewards, who contacted the outrider. Stevens, meanwhile, was approaching the gate with three minutes to post, trying to keep Point Given away from the other horses. "He gets nervous when another horse is around him," Stevens said.
When the outrider came alongside Point Given, it upset the colt and he became unruly behind the gate. To make matters worse, either the stewards or the outrider got the instructions wrong, telling Stevens to make sure he had his whip in his left hand leaving the gate, which totally confused the rider. Stevens, not happy about this "bizarre" last-minute intrusion on his concentration, elected to simply ignore it. Continued . . .