By Noel Michaels
The 2021 Monmouth Park summer race meet is rolling along amid quite the buzz these days, but perhaps for all the wrong reasons.
While the focus should be on the quality racing and wagering the track has to offer, the headlines have mostly been about the track’s controversial restrictive new rule banning the use of the whip during racing and training except in subjective cases involving the safety of horses and jockeys.
The meet opened on May 28, and is racing three days a week, Fridays through Sundays plus holidays. The meet encompasses 48 racing days until Sept. 26. The stakes centerpiece is the $1 million Haskell Invitational (G1) on July 17.
Monmouth has had trouble attracting jockeys to commit to ride the meet due to the stringent anti-whip rules. Only 16 jockeys have “signed on” to ride the meet, including Jose Baez, Isaac Castillo, Keibar Coa, Sean Gilpin, Derbe Glass, Jose Ferrer, Carlos Hernandez, Nik Juarez, Tomas Mejia, Carlos Montalvo, Christian Navarro, Luis Ocasio, Jorge Panaijo, Ferrin Peterson, Luis Reyes, and Jomar Torres. Conspicuously absent from that list is perennial leading rider, “Jersey” Joe Bravo, who is riding at Belmont.
The Jockey’s Guild strongly opposes Monmouth’s new whip ban and has initiated a lawsuit to block the rule’s implementation. Several horsemen have also come out vocally against the ban and said they would not enter their horses at Monmouth, including most notably Gary Contessa, who issued a scathing public statement condemning the policy.
Through the early stages of the Monmouth meet, entries have been less that usual to some extent, but the track still attracts enough horses to fill 12- to 13-race cards on weekends.
As for the Haskell, in addition to being a headline Grade 1 race for 3-year-olds on the calendar, the race could be a particularly interesting novelty in 2021. Monmouth Park has thrown out the welcome mat for trainer Bob Baffert, who has been banned in other places. Baffert is expected to enter Kentucky Derby-winner Medina Spirit in the Haskell, where he could face off against Derby runner-up Mandaloun. Mandaloun is in line to be declared the Kentucky winner if Medina Spirit is disqualified. A decision is pending.
Mandaloun sat out the Preakness (G1) and Belmont Stakes) G1) for trainer Brad Cox but came back with a narrow win in the Pegasus Stakes – Monmouth’s local prep for the Haskell.
Other horses currently considering the Haskell include Pegasus second-place finisher Weyburn, Preakness winner Rombauer, and Belmont runner-up Hot Rod Charlie. Following Sea and Midnight Bourbon are also possible.
If you are not familiar with handicapping Monmouth on a day-to-day basis, there is still plenty of time to brush up on what it takes to pick winners at the Jersey Shore. Here is a brief handicapping overview at Monmouth:
The main trainers that can be counted on to fill up the Monmouth entry box are Wayne Potts, Jose Delgado, and Kelly Breen. Through the first two weeks, Potts leads trainers with eight wins from 31 starters for 26%. Delgado is second with seven wins from 25 starters and is the current leader among trainers with the most starters in terms of winning percentage at 28%. Breen leads all trainers in entries at 32 and has five winners for 16%. Breen was Monmouth’s leading trainer in 2020. Joe Orseno is off to a hot start with 3 wins from his first five starters.
Top barns such as Chad Brown, Todd Pletcher, and Christophe Clement are always represented throughout the Monmouth Park season, particularly in turf races with horses that are outclassed in New York. Expect high win percentages from those horses. Other prominent barns that will have strings at Monmouth include Saffie Joseph, Jr. (currently 1-for-4), and Kent Sweezey (2-for-9). Cox and Steve Asmussen will also have the occasional starter. Other prominent trainers fighting for top five placings in the standings include Jerry Hollendorfer and Luis Carvajal Jr.
Perhaps more so than any other track, racing at Monmouth is defined by one predominant factor: Speed. Thanks to a lightning-fast track surface, tight turns, and a short stretch, Monmouth might be the most speed conducive track in the country in terms of success. If you’re betting Monmouth and you want to make money consistently, you must downgrade the closers and bet speed horses and close-to-the-pace horses who can be no more than two lengths behind at the second call.
The Monmouth speed bias is apparent at all distances on the main track. It is greatest in short sprints and gets gradually milder as the distances increase. In short sprints at 5 1/2 to 6 furlongs on the dirt, front-runners win over 34% of all races, with most of the remaining winners either pressing or stalking the pace no further than a couple lengths back.
The speed bias is a little less in two turn routes than it is in sprints, but front-runners are still good bets at a mile and at 1 mile, 70 yards. While the pacesetter does not win as many of Monmouth’s routes as sprints, horses with tactical speed than can at least press the pace tend to far outperform horses coming from father behind.
Most of Monmouth’s sprints are run at 6 furlongs, and while the rail is the best place to be at that distance, it is not a strong enough bias to prevent the front-runner(s) from winning from nearly any gate draw. At 5 1/2 furlongs, middle posts 4-7 do slightly better than inside draws. It should be noted that the combination of speed and the rail in 6-furlong races is an especially deadly angle at Monmouth Park.
In routes, the post positions play a much bigger role in the outcomes. In routes, it is not only important to have speed, but it is also important to break from a beneficial post position. At most route distances, the inside posts 1-3 are the best gates to break from. At a mile, however, it is the middle posts 4-7 that usually do a little better than the inside gates. Just as you’d expect, post draws Nos. 8 and outward are almost always detrimental in Monmouth routes.
On the turf, it is not surprising to note that inside posts are also the best posts, since it follows suit that if the main track has tight turns and a short stretch then the turf course must also have an even smaller and tighter layout. The inside posts are best on Monmouth’s turf course at all distances, and the rail post seems like the best place to be.
Just like on the main track, speed is handy on the Monmouth grass, especially in turf sprints. Speed is handy in routes, too, but wire-to-wire types win only about 15% of the races. It is tactical speed that is the key on the Monmouth course, where you want to bet pace-pressers who can stay early striking distance within a few lengths of the lead.
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.
He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.
In addition to contributing to US Racing, he is also an analyst on the Arlington Park broadcast team.