Photo: Eclipse Sportswire
When the American Graded Stakes Committee came out with its listing of U.S. Graded and Listed Stakes Races for 2014 yesterday, the downgrading of one race hit home more than any of the others. As of next year, Monmouth Park’s Sapling Stakes will no longer be a graded stakes race. That’s a shame, as it is a race with a wonderful tradition. In its nearly seventy years of history, The Sapling roll call of winners includes a most impressive list of racing stars. Horses like Blue Peter, Needles, Hail to Reason, Sir Gaylord, Buckpasser, Foolish Pleasure, Alydar, Rockhill Native, Bet Twice, Carson City, Gilded Time, Hennessy, and Smoke Glacken have come to Monmouth and won the Jersey Shore oval’s premier race for juvenile colts.
The Sapling not only possesses a rich and storied history, but it also happens to be one of my favorite childhood races. As a horse racing crazy kid growing up in New Jersey, there were plenty of great tracks within driving distance, and Monmouth Park was one of my favorites. Other than the Monmouth Invitational, since renamed the Haskell Invitational, the Sapling was tops on the list of Monmouth races that I looked forward to every summer. Year in, and year out, it attracted many of the season’s best two-year-olds. So much so, that I now find it somewhat hard to believe its relative insignificance on the American racing landscape.
I cannot blame the American Graded Stakes Committee for dropping the Sapling as a graded stakes race. It is not what it once was. With the current trend of many of the best young horses only making a start or two before the Breeders’ Cup, a late summer, six furlong stakes race in New Jersey is simply no longer in vogue. I still have my memories, though, of the once proud race.
Back in the day, the Sapling was not only a graded race, it was a grade 1. By 1986, however, it had been downgraded to a grade 2, but the winner of that edition was grade one all the way. Owned and trained by a pair of New Jersey mainstays, Robert Levy and Jimmy Croll, I was lucky enough to see Bet Twice break his maiden in near impossible fashion. To see an untested horse come from the clouds to power by his opponents in the Monmouth Park stretch is something that almost never happened at at the speed favoring Jersey shore oval, especially with the babies. Bet Twice was far from a normal Thoroughbred though, so when I had the chance to see him again in the Sapling, I was excited. This time, though, he would be facing probably the most talked about young colt at the time, Faster Than Sound.
Faster Than Sound had blitzed his competition to date, and in very fast time. The regular rider of both colts, Craig Perret chose the favorite, meaning that Bet Twice was available for the best young rider in the nation, Chris Antley. I liked Perret, but this young Antley kid was really something.
When the gates sprung open, Homebuilder, from the Woody Stephens barn, broke on top, as Faster Than Sound chased in close pursuit. Antley, meanwhile, had Bet Twice much closer than in his first two wins, and was sitting in third on the outside. When Faster Than Sound surged to the lead on the far turn, Bet Twice followed. Perret asked the colt, that he had chosen, in early stretch for more, but the battle would not last long. Bet Twice loped up to the favorite and ran right on by. He hit the wire an easy 2 ½ length winner.
In a meeting of undefeated colts, it was the 7-2 second choice who proved much the best over the 3-10 hyped horse. It was a satisfying result for this then young fan and handicapper. The nice colt, Homebuilder, stayed on well and finished close to Faster Than Sound in third, some 16 lengths clear of the fourth horse. Needless to say, Bet Twice was my favorite juvenile of 1986.
Bet Twice would go on to win numerous big races, including the following year’s Haskell in a real slobberknocker over Alysheba and Lost Code. He also competed against Alysheba in all three legs of the Triple Crown. Finishing second to him in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, before romping home in the Belmont Stakes by 14 lengths. In all, he won more than $3.3 million at a time when that figure really meant something.
Graded or not, Bet Twice’s win was just one of many great memories that I have of the Sapling Stakes.