Aug 29, 2020

Exploring the Historic Haven That is Monmouth Park

By Lori Draz

Crowds in the 1950s line up for betting

The noble stallion and the many beautiful, inspiring horse farms are a grand part of life in Monmouth County. Some are recreational horses, others are business partners, and one of the national showplaces of thoroughbred horseracing is Monmouth Park in Oceanport.

You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t visited this grand lady of racing. It’s such an important address it even has its own stop on NJ Transit. You can practically hear the echoing hoof beats of some of the sport’s most famous horses and races. At Monmouth Park, living chapters of new history are made every season, amid the historic and impeccable grounds of this unique location.

As New Jersey’s only live thoroughbred racing track, Monmouth Park is home to the elite Haskell Invitational, a $1 million race for 3-year-olds that has been contested by 29 Triple Crown race winners, seven Breeders’ Cup Classic winners and eight Hall of Fame horses.

Amory L. Haskell

Monmouth Park’s prominent reputation also earned it hosting rights in 2007 to the Breeders’ Cup championships, horse racing’s two-day championship event. Other major Monmouth Park races include the United Nations, the Matchmaker and the Molly Pitcher.

The track was also the first location in New Jersey to accept a legalized sports wager in 2018.

Monmouth Park first opened on July 30, 1870. Since opening, there have actually been three buildings which have carried the name Monmouth Park.

The original Monmouth Park was conceived by New York businessman John F. Chamberlain, New Jersey Senate President Amos Robbins and Adams Express Company President John Hoey to create an irresistible entertainment attraction at the Jersey Shore. The team set the standards high and shortly after opening, Monmouth Park achieved distinction as the “Newmarket of America” – a reference to the famed racecourse in England. Despite its lauded entry into horseracing, operating the track proved to be expensive, and the original Monmouth Park closed just three years after opening.

Artist rendering of Monmouth Park in 1870

The next inception came in 1890 following four years of restoration to the grounds by the team of George L. Lorillard, D.D. Withers, G.P. Wetmore and James Gordon Bennett. It was such a success that a new racecourse was built adjacent to the existing track. Sadly, this version of Monmouth Park was not open long because the state passed legislature to stop pari-mutuel betting. The track was closed and the land sold, and there would be no racing for more than 50 years.

Monmouth Park sand sculpture

But horses and racing are in the blood on Monmouth County and on June 19, 1946, in front of a crowd of 18,724, the current Monmouth Park Jockey Club opened, thanks to the efforts of Amory L. Haskell who lobbied to legalize pari-mutuel wagering for both the Standardbred and Thoroughbred industries.

Haskell led the team which included Reeve Schley, Joseph M. Roebling, Townsend B. Martin, John MacDonald, James Cox Brady and Philip H. Iselin, who chaired the construction and served as the Treasurer of the Monmouth Park Jockey Club. Iselin would also serve as the president of the track following Haskell’s death.

Today, the track still hosts modern day stakes races, including the Molly Pitcher Handicap and the Lamplighter, which go back to the 1946 season, as well as Monmouth Oaks and Colleen Stakes which started in the 1800s.

In 1986, Monmouth Park was purchased by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. It reinstated the Monmouth Cup, inaugurated in 1884 and renamed it the Philip H. Iselin Handicap.

Monmouth Park’s main track is a one-mile (1.6 km) dirt oval with chutes for six furlong and 1¼ mile races.

The turf course is seven furlongs in circumference. Turf races can be run along the hedge or with the portable rail out 12 feet (dubbed the Haskell Course), 24 feet (Monmouth Course) or 36 feet (Lennox Course).

A record New Jersey racing crowd of 60,983 turned out in 2015 to see Triple Crown winner American Pharoah win the Haskell Invitational.

The track also has numerous ways to enjoy a day at the races, including a picnic area with grills (which need to be reserved) the open-air grandstand for a close-up view of the races, several air conditioned dining rooms and viewing areas, plus activities for children, bars, food booths, as well as activities and special, themed days. The main concourse is decorated with banners of notable races and photographs of historic days at the track.

You have until Sunday, Sept. 27 to visit this magnificent place, and this year, all parking and admission is free. Seating, viewing and dining areas are all open too. Bring a camera and your lucky charm and enjoy!