Central New Jersey breaks out in Pharoah fever

Staff Writer

 Brian Skirka and Emilee Carton mingle prior to the Lilly Pulitzer Fashion Show held as part of the “Hats and Horses: A Day at the Races” event held at Monmouth Park in Oceanport Aug. 1, the day before the Haskell Invitational.  STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR Brian Skirka and Emilee Carton mingle prior to the Lilly Pulitzer Fashion Show held as part of the “Hats and Horses: A Day at the Races” event held at Monmouth Park in Oceanport Aug. 1, the day before the Haskell Invitational. STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR  At 9 a.m. sharp, the sirens started to blare. Some people were smiling, some people were running with their hands in the air, some people were shouting, “We’re in!”

Some of the first fans at Monmouth Park racetrack in Oceanport on Aug. 2 — an estimated 6,000 of whom arrived before the gates opened at 9 a.m. in anticipation of watching Triple Crown winner American Pharoah run in the William Hill Haskell Invitational — stopped to take photos in front of the sand castle that welcomes horse racing fans to the track. Some people bought their racing programs immediately. Some scouted out the beer tents.

But most progressed as quickly as they could inside toward the track.

Aralynn Goodson, 4, is the reason her mother was one of the first people on line to enter Monmouth Park.

Lisa Goodson got up at 3 a.m. to prepare her daughter for the drive from Belmar to Oceanport, and said there was no traffic.

“There’s no long line if you’re the first one here,” she said.

During the running of the Belmont Stakes in June, Lisa Goodson said, she and Aralynn were at Applebee’s when her daughter gained an interest in the race.

“She was screaming at the TV for [American Pharoah] to win,” Lisa Goodson said. “We are new to horse racing. When she asked, ‘Can I go see the horse?’ I said I would bring her. She’s a big Pharoah fan. She got me into it.”

Having toy horses since she was a baby, and going so far as to visit the New York Police Department’s horse barn, Aralynn said she was excited about the race “because I got an American Pharoah doll.”

“He’s gonna race,” she said happily, “around and around and around very fast.”

And run fast he did — American Pharoah won the Haskell over Keen Ice in 1:47.95. The distance was 1 1/8 miles.

Another youngster visiting the track for the first time was 7-year-old Christopher Phillips, who came from Connecticut to spend time with his grandparents Roger and Carol Severin of Little Silver — and to see the Triple Crown winner.

“We want to show him American Pharoah,” Roger Severin said.

“When you have a special animal like that, it can be a historic event — it would be really nice for him to see,” Carol Severin added.

Another family eager to watch American Pharoah run in the 12th of the day’s 14 races was Brian Estes, his daughter Madison, 7, his girlfriend, Dawn, and her children, Gabby, 13, and Anthony, 11.

They arrived from Lyndhurst about 8 a.m., encountering no traffic on Route 36, but wanted to make sure they beat the crowd regardless.

“Me and three other guys hid out in the bathroom,” Estes laughed about sneaking into the picnic area before the park opened to the general public. “When they opened the gate, we sprinted to these tables.”

Although they come down to Monmouth Park a few times a year because “it’s a great area … down the shore,” this particular race day held special meaning.

“When else are you going to get to see another Triple Crown winner, especially in your home state?” Estes said.

Two gentlemen eagerly awaiting that day were Donald Mangianello of Toms River and his daughter’s father-in-law, Gene Cooke of Jackson.

“In 37 years there hasn’t been a [Triple Crown] winner,” Cooke said.

“There’s nothing like being here. You get to meet a lot of good people,” Mangianello added. “I just like coming here, relaxing and enjoying myself.”

Although Mangianello said he was going to bet on a longshot instead of on American Pharoah in the $1.75 million race, the two men agreed the excitement comes in spending the day at the track, instead of trying to win real money.

“As a kid I used to ride a horse. I like the sport more than the bet,” said Cooke, who has been coming to Monmouth Park since the 1980s, usually betting on a trainer or jockey.

“What you win, you put back. And you go home happy,” said Mangianello, whose bets are placed according to a specific number or jockey.

However, race day was not all play and no work. More than 100 officers from the New Jersey State Police, and the Oceanport, Long Branch, Tinton Falls, Eatontown, Middletown, Little Silver, Red Bank and Sea Bright police departments; K-9s from the state police and Monmouth County; the Monmouth County fire marshal; volunteer firefighters from across the county; first aid and EMS squads; Homeland Security; and Community Emergency Response Teams were on hand to handle security issues, traffic patterns and crowd control.

Even though a record-setting crowd of 60,983 fans were at the track at the height of the day, Oceanport Police Capt. Michael Chenoweth said that everything operated smoothly.

“The traffic is moving,” he said. “The traffic plans in place have been working.”

Although traffic was higher than usual because of American Pharoah’s presence, Chenoweth said everything was under control.

“Normally we don’t have a lot of incidents with this (Haskell) event,” he said.

He also noted that the Oceanport train station, which operates seasonally while the track is open, had a “big flow since the morning.”

Although it might seem that people who were not at the track would be patronizing local businesses, that was not the case.

Gus Koutantos, owner of the Raceway Diner, Route 36, West Long Branch, less than a mile west of the track, said “our regular customers stayed away because they are afraid of the traffic. Normally, at this time [11:40 a.m.] we would have people waiting to sit down.”

Koutantos did say business was up about 25 percent during the week since July 29, when American Pharoah arrived in the area, but “today we are a little bit slower than a regular Haskell because everybody is afraid to come out. … Tonight we’ll be busy for sure, when people leave.”

The BP gas station next to the diner experienced a similar drop in business, according to its managers.

However, Khushbu Kansara, who was working at the La Quinta Inn, Route 36, said business exploded this week. The 98 rooms were sold out most of the week, with an average 95 percent occupancy rate.

“Because of the racetrack, the last three days have been sold out,” she said, adding that while she checked in visitors from Florida, Texas and California, locals come to stay for a night as well.

“Local New Jersey — they come to stay and go the next day in the morning,” she said, mostly because those with reservations can park their cars and walk to the track.

“It’s no hassle,” she said.

Buffalo Wild Wings at the nearby Monmouth Mall in Eatontown was expecting customers just in time for the race.

“We had a decent turnout last year, so I expect a big turnout tonight,” manager Steven Serebnick said. “With American Pharoah running, it’s a little more hectic over there [at the track].”

The ties to New Jersey extend beyond just horseracing in Oceanport; American Pharoah is owned by Ahmed Zayat of Teaneck. The horse was ridden by Victor Espinoza and trained by Bob Baffert.