Guest Blog by Ben Massam
With the opening of Saratoga and Del Mar this weekend, any regular follower of the game knows that the Monmouth Park is not in the spotlight. Nonetheless, the Saturday feature is a stakes race loaded with history: the Jersey Derby.
Race sound familiar? The Jersey Derby was once a prominent fixture on the spring-summer schedule, contested mainly at 9-to-10 furlongs on the dirt at a number of tracks across the Garden State. The race was last held as a graded stakes in 2004, but you don’t need to turn back the pages of history too much further to find that the Jersey Derby has one of the richest traditions of any stakes race on the Monmouth Park calendar.
It’s a race that was initially held in 1864 at an unnamed racetrack in Paterson, New Jersey—perhaps 12 miles from the current grandstand at the Meadowlands. The Jersey Derby was absent for 62 years between 1880 and 1942 until it was revived by Garden State Park, then held at different periods of time periodically at Garden State, Atlantic City, and eventually its current home, Monmouth. The race has been won by exceptional racehorses, influential stallions, and in some cases both: over the years, the Derby has been taken down by Citation, Jaipur, In Reality, Spend a Buck, Snow Chief, and Da Hoss.
Citation’s win in the 1948 Jersey Stakes—the name of the race during the 1940s and 1950s—came sandwiched two weeks between wins in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
Dr. Fager finished well clear of the field, only to be disqualified and placed fourth in the 1967 running of the race, but went on to make amends with a fantastic career as an older horse, including a win in the 1968 United Nations Handicap at Atlantic City en route to Horse of the Year honors.
Perhaps the most publicized Jersey Derby was the 1985 edition. Just over eight years after a fire destroyed the grandstand at the old Garden State Park, the extravagantly rebuilt track offered a $2 million purse bonus to any runner who won the Cherry Hill Mile, Garden State Stakes, Kentucky Derby, and Jersey Derby. New Jersey-based Spend a Buck completed the first three legs of the quartet, capped by a convincing 5¾ length score in the Kentucky Derby. Rather than pursue the next leg of the Triple Crown at Pimlico, Spend a Buck’s connections opted to stay home and run for the richest purse to date on American soil. The decision paid off: Spend a Buck triumphed over Crème Fraiche in the 10 furlong race.
Yet over time, as Garden State Park struggled to hold attendance and interest of the betting public, the race became less and less prominent on the stakes calendar. In 1993, the race was shifted to the turf course, and by 1999, it was transferred to Monmouth Park. Nevertheless, some very nice horses have won it over the past decade-and-a-half. Last year, Howe Great dropped into the Jersey Derby after four consecutive graded stakes attempts, winning the race easily over five overmatched rivals for trainer Graham Motion. Now trained by Rick Metee for Team Valor International, Howe Great was most recently second in the Grade 3 Poker at Belmont.
As we look forward to the 2013 edition, the $60,000 race going 8 ½ furlongs on the turf is the feature on a hot Saturday in mid-July, one week before Monmouth’s marquis weekend of racing. In this year’s Jersey Derby, you won’t find entrants as accomplished as Citation or Spend a Buck, nor will you find any of the three-year-olds currently recognized as the top tier of their division—the Virginia Derby and the Solar Splendor Stakes took care of those runners last weekend. What you will find in the Jersey Derby is a field of nine improving three-year-olds, some of whom undoubtedly have the potential to become regulars in stakes across the region.
Shining Copper is the 5-2 morning line favorite for trainer Oussama Aboughazale, coming off a seventh place finish in the Grade 3 Hill Prince at Belmont. He set a relatively swift early pace in that event before tiring to finish seventh, beaten 4¾ lengths by Notacatbutallama. Runners who were close to the early pace before fading that day include Special Skills—who came back to win a first level allowance at Monmouth—and Joha—who returned to finish second behind Notacatbutallama in the Solar Splendor.
English Minister adds blinkers for his return to Monmouth after two rail-skimming third-place finishes against older first-level allowance foes. Dylan Smith, lead assistant to trainer Richard Small notes, “He's definitely still maturing and improving, which is a big reason we stayed out of those other races. We don't want to get our horses in too tough too soon. He's such a happy horse. The whole idea of racing is exciting to him, and we want to keep it that way.”
“It's certainly going to be a very good race and I think that any of them could win it. There are no stand-out monsters in here on the form, though any of these horses have a good shot of improving and competing at a higher class.”
If history is any indication, runners exiting the race will do just fine.