OCEANPORT, N.J.—It's just past 7 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in late July and the backstretch at Monmouth Park Racetrack is full of activity. Blacksmiths are fitting horses with shoes, hammering the U-shaped pieces of lightweight aluminum onto their hooves and then shaving away bits of the horses’ “toe nails” with large files. Elsewhere, sleek thoroughbreds are being bathed, groomed and fed. On the track, training of all kinds is in full swing, everything from horses learning to enter the starting gate to full-on speed work. Days here start around 5 a.m.
“This is the life we get hooked on,” says John Forbes, Jr., the 67-year old president of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, and the director of Phantom House Farm, a limited partnership racing firm. “This part of the sport, it's just very peaceful, serene.” Indeed, aside from the periodic hammering of the blacksmith, about the only sounds are the clip-clop of the horses being walked around the grounds and the thumpity-thump from the racetrack, where morning workouts are conducted.
In a few moments, Forbes will head into the stable to visit Just Call Kenny, whom he has entered to run on Saturday in Monmouth Park's annual marquee event, the mile-and-an-eighth Haskell Invitational. The Haskell, a $1 million race for 3-year-olds, is part of the Breeders' Cup Challenge Series, in which the winners of selected races around the country automatically qualify for a spot in thoroughbred racing's world championships, which will be held at Santa Anita Park on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. The nine-horse field for the Haskell is a strong one: In addition to Just Call Kenny, who finished second in the Long Branch Stakes at Monmouth on July 5 in his last start, it also includes Bayern, trained by six-time Haskell winner Bob Baffert; Medal Count, who finished third in the Belmont; Social Inclusion, who finished third in the Preakness; and superfilly Untapable, the winner of the Kentucky Oaks, who is unbeaten in four starts this year.
“He'll be a fan favorite,” Forbes says of Just Call Kenny. “Because everyone loves to have a Monmouth horse to cheer on. But this year's field is as strong as I've ever seen in the Haskell.”
In the meantime, Forbes just wants to talk about Monmouth Park. Dressed in a blue and white striped button-down, khaki pants and boat shoes, the white-haired Forbes is greeted on a first name basis by nearly every person who passes by on the backstretch. There's a reason for that. He's been walking these grounds for nearly 40 years.
“My mother and father were horse trainers in Maryland, and that's how I got started in the sport, as a trainer,” Forbes says. “When the Meadowlands opened in 1977, we brought horses up to race, and from 1978, we stayed in New Jersey. What was the deciding factor was this place here. Not many of the remaining racetracks in the country have the charm and ambience of this place. I fell in love with Monmouth, that's why we stayed. It's a little hard to describe how Monmouth captures you. But it's a step back in time.”
From the time he was in his mid-20s until he turned 60, Forbes was a trainer. His best runner was Tale of the Cat, who finished fourth in the 1997 Haskell behind Belmont winner Touch Gold before winning the King's Bishop Stakes at Saratoga three weeks later. Tale of the Cat is now a stallion at Ashford Stud in Versailles, Ky., where his breeding fee is a lofty $25,000.
“Technically, I've won more races than any other trainer in New Jersey [racing history],” Forbes says with a grin. “But that's because the Meadowlands was open for four months a year and we won 700 races at the Meadowlands. Mathematically, no one can catch me.”
When he turned 60, he turned the training over to long-time partner Pat McBurney, the man who is prepping Just Call Kenny for the Haskell.
“Pat was always there,” Forbes says. “We are a team and I always told him when I turned 60 I'd start running these horses in his name, because he'd been in the shadows too long. This year, Pat took full control as far as operating the stable. I'm just a guy who comes around. My main function now is to run Phantom House Farm, putting the partnerships together. We keep our partnerships smaller than most, and I'm in charge of that.”
Touring Monmouth Park on a golf cart, Forbes delights in pointing out the old school amenities of the track, which opened in 1870, and hosts racing for the summer folks who frequent the Jersey Shore. He takes an elevator to the second level of the grandstand and walks across the shiny tile floors to the suites that overlook the one-mile dirt oval and the seven-furlong turf course. It's not so much the comforts of the suite that make Forbes wax poetic, but the simple beauty. The colorful flower boxes below the railing of the open-air deck, the cushioned seats. He draws a deep breath.
“Just look around,” he says. “This is what horse racing used to be, back in the 40s.”
As he clings to the glorious past, Forbes knows that for tracks like Monmouth Park to survive, they've also got to move into the future. If sports betting becomes legal in New Jersey, he says it will help the venue. He points to a piece of real estate in the parking lot that will soon be home to an outdoor concert venue. A Jersey Shore style boardwalk is going to be constructed outside the racetrack. There's already a miniature golf course in place. Forbes hopes these features can be added without altering Monmouth's charm. He knows better than to think that one race can change the business, but when he enters the stable and greets Just Call Kenny, it's obvious that Forbes still dreams the big dream.
“He's just a wonderful horse to be around,” Forbes says, Kenny simultaneously nipping at his shoulder and nuzzling him. “He's going to take on toughest Haskell field in a decade. But you can see he's not worried about it. He injured himself running in the Spectacular Bid [which the colt won on Jan. 4]. We were offered $2.5 million, but we didn't sell him because he [had an injured foreleg that kept him out of action for six months]. I've bought five bad ones for every good one, but Kenny is a grand horse.” And with that statement, Forbes gives the horse three love smacks on the back. “Right, Kenny?”
As romantic as Forbes can be about Monmouth Park and the quiet mornings on the backstretch, he's equally realistic about the business that is his life. In his job as president of the NJTHA, he deals with such issues as safety—for both riders and horses—and fair purses. The NJTHA also leases Monmouth Park from the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which is why he is so passionate about keeping the track viable, and trying to make it better.
“But if we are honest with ourselves, we know at the end of the day, we sell bets,” Forbes says. “Nobody back here likes to say it this way, but we work at a gambling house. We sell bets. That's what pays the bills. But here in the morning, that's a far-off thought.”
|date||network||time (et)||race||track||Winner qualifies for||post times (ET)|
|July 27||NBC||5:00 p.m.||Haskell Invitational||Monmouth Park||Breeders' Cup Classic||5:45 p.m.|
|August 2||NBC||5:00 p.m.||Whitney Handicap||Saratoga Racecourse||Breeders' Cup Classic||5:45 p.m.|
|August 23||NBC||4:30 p.m.||Ballerina Stakes||Saratoga Racecourse||Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint||5:08 p.m.|
|August 24||NBCSN||8:00 p.m.||Pacific Classic||Del Mar Thoroughbred Club||Breeders' Cup Classic||8:44 p.m.|
|August 30||NBCSN||6:00 p.m.||Forego Stakes||Saratoga Racecourse||Breeders' Cup Sprint||6:45 p.m|
|September 27||NBCSN||6:00 p.m.||Jockey Club Gold Cup||Belmont Park||Breeders' Cup Classic||6:08 p.m.|
|September 27||NBCSN||6:00 p.m.||TBD||Santa Anita Park||TBD||6:30 p.m.|
|September 27||NBCSN||6:00 p.m.||TBD||Santa Anita Park||TBD||7:05 p.m.|
|September 27||NBCSN||6:00 p.m.||Awesome Again Stakes||Santa Anita Park||Breeders' Cup Classic||7:45 p.m.|
|October 4||NBCSN||4:30 p.m.||Jenny Wiley Stakes||Keeneland Racecourse||Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf||4:35 p.m.|
|October 4||NBCSN||4:30 p.m.||Breeders' Futurity||Keeneland Racecourse||Breeders' Cup Juvenile||5:08 p.m.|
|October 4||NBCSN||4:30 p.m.||Shadwell Mile||Keeneland Racecourse||Breeders' Cup Mile||5:45 p.m.|
|October 5||NBC||5:00 p.m.||Bourbon Stakes||Keeneland Racecourse||Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf||5:08 p.m.|
|October 5||NBC||5:00 p.m.||Spinster Stakes||Keeneland Racecourse||Breeders' Cup Distaff||5:45 p.m.|