Race of the Week 2017

Juveniles Return to Monmouth Park This Weekend

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Pay close attention to the first races of the day on Saturday and Sunday. This could be the start of something big.

Two-year-old racing, always eagerly awaited at Monmouth Park, makes its return on Saturday with six fillies entered in the maiden special weight event at four and a half furlongs. On Sunday, the boys have their chance in the first race of the day, also at four and a half furlongs.

Monmouth’s summer meeting has provided an abundance of memories to savor over the past 67 years, but for many who follow the action in Oceanport, the highlight of any season is the 2-year-old racing, where hope springs eternal and everybody’s a champion going to the gate for the first time.

Sunday’s sprint for the baby boys drew a field of five, including the Eddie Plesa Jr.-trained Yes I’m Lucky, who sold for $105,000 at the Ocala Breeders Sales in March. Jane Cibelli, leading trainer at Monmouth the last two years, has Pomeroy’s Package in there, and Kelly Breen is represented by Rachel’s Quest. Clovis Crane ships in One Eyed Clyde from Penn National.

But the one to watch is New Farm’s Holy Rocker, a son of Rockport Harbor trained by Ben Perkins Jr.  It’s always been worth watching a Perkins-trained 2-year-old at Monmouth.

Between Ben Jr. and father Ben Sr., the Perkins family has probably accounted for more than 50 juvenile winners at Monmouth through the decades. Holy Rocker is just the latest in a long line.

“A lot of good horses have broken their maiden at Monmouth,” Perkins said. “Most of our good ones won here, including Storm Tower and Wildcat Heir. And the three fillies who won the Sorority (Stormy Pick, Forest Heiress and Wild Snitch) all broke their maiden here.

“I remember so many 2-year-old races here,” Perkins said. “And always tough. We beat Skip Away with Cold Snap (1995) in their first start. And the next year, we beat Smoke Glacken with Confide.

“You never know what kind of horses you’re going to hook. I remember a baby race here in 2005. We had Mid Town, a horse we liked a lot. Then I saw Henny Hughes walk into the paddock and I knew we were in deep trouble.”

Henny Hughes beat Mid Town by six that June 17 and went on to win Grade 1 sprints.

“One of the baby races that really stands out in my mind,” Perkins said, “was in 2004. We didn’t have anybody in the race, but this one horse looked like a rocketship. It was Joey P. Right after the race, I asked (the late trainer) Frankie Costa if he was for sale.”

For the record, Joey P. broke his maiden by six and a quarter lengths and stayed the property of John Petrini. Perkins eventually became the trainer of Joey P.

The fact that really good horses come out of Monmouth maiden races is well-documented. Since the 1960s, eight champions and a host of major stakes winners have gotten their start right here.

The champions who came out of Monmouth maiden races were Tosmah (1963), Candy Éclair (1978), Lord Avie (1980), Open Mind (1988), Dehere (1993), Holy Bull (1994), Skip Away (a champion in 1996, 1997 and 1998), and Smoke Glacken (1996).

To prove that Monmouth baby races are very tough, there are a couple of noteworthy first-time losers besides Skip Away and Smoke Glacken. Dark Mirage, 3-year-old champion (filly or colt) of 1968, lost her first start here, and Top Knight, champion 2-year-old of 1968, lost his initial outing.


Joe Pierce Jr., the senior man on the Monmouth Park backstretch (he turns 86 on June 24) is down to a five-horse stable these days. But that doesn’t mean you should ever overlook one of his runners.

Take his entrant in Saturday’s $60,000 John J. Reilly Handicap for example. Hop Skip and Away, owned by Pierce and H.C.B. Lindh, is having a very good season at age 8. He’s gone 1-1-1 in 4 starts this year, all against open company, and should appreciate meeting New Jersey-breds again.

Hop Skip and Away, a son of Gold Fever, spent the winter in the care of Patricia and Mike Farro, who were stabled in Pennsylvania. He got through two allowance conditions across the Delaware River, and also ran third in the Bensalem Stakes at Parx.

Now he’s back with state-breds in the Reilly, a six-furlong event he’s run well in before, and Pierce says he’s ready to show his best.

"The Farros did a helluva job with him over the winter,” Pierce said. “He’s been rested the last two months, and he’s ready to go again.”

Hop Skip and Away has a solid record in the six-furlong Reilly. He ran in the event for the first time in 2010 and finished third behind Unwritten and Joey P. In 2011, he was third behind Dabnabit and Gunfighter. Last year was his best effort ever in the race, when he finished second, two lengths behind The Hunk.

While Hop Skip and Away was toiling through the frigid winter up north, Pierce was enjoying the balmy breezes in Florida.

“Yes, I take the winters off now,” the trainer said. “But I always look forward to getting back to Monmouth. Getting back to the horses. I’ve been racing at Monmouth since 1969, and I wouldn’t know what else to do. No chance I’ll retire.

“I can’t retire because I need something to do in the mornings,” Pierce said. “I’ve been training so long, I wouldn’t know what else to do with myself.”

Pierce, whose father Joe Pierce Sr. was a regular on the New Jersey circuit more than 50 years ago, has had a loyal crew throughout his Monmouth days. “Baby Ray,” who had been an assistant for decades, passed away this spring. But Roy Simms, who has been with the father and son Pierces for 50 years, still plays a key role in running the barn.

“I’m down to five horses right now, but ...,” Pierce said his voice rising with the word “but.” “But I’m expecting two 2-year-olds in from Ocala very soon. Nothing like 2-year-olds to keep you young.”





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