The Monmouth County borough of Oceanport, a few miles west of the Atlantic Ocean, has fewer than 6,000 residents. But its status as home to a thoroughbred racing track known as Monmouth Park dates back to 1870 and puts Oceanport on the New Jersey sports map each summer.
And as of Saturday, the borough can add more equine bragging rights. That’s because Jeff and Kathy Heiss, who live practically in the shadow of the track, are two of the dozens of owners of Belmont Stakes winner Mo Donegal.
“It was amazing,” Heiss told The Asbury Park Press about the immediate aftermath of the race, where Heiss — who, along with his wife, began investing in racehorses just last year — added that “there were 300 people, maybe more, and I think almost all of us squeezed into that winner’s circle. Absolutely crazy, but just a lot of fun.”
Mo Donegal’s victory was not the stunner that 80/1 shot Rich Strike was when that horse won the Kentucky Derby after getting into the field as an alternate one day before the Run for The Roses last month. Rather, Mo Donegal was the 5/2 favorite after having won the Wood Memorial and placing fifth in the Kentucky Derby — and he then won the Belmont Stakes by three lengths. The horse paid $7.20, $3.80, and $3 for win, place, and show bets. Rich Strike finished sixth.
“It just wasn’t meant to be in the Derby,” Heiss, who owns 2.5% of Mo Donegal with his wife, told The Press. “But you saw that he tries like hell. He is a fighter and the longer the race goes the better chance you have with him. I think we were confident, yes, but you don’t want to jinx yourself either. But we felt comfortable we had the best horse and that is what he showed.”
The mechanics of horse ownership
After a lavish trip to Churchill Downs that included $2,000 tickets and more than eight hours of festivities, the Heisses were content with $100 seats and a 4 p.m. arrival to Belmont Park on Saturday.
The Donegal Racing partnership annually buys seven to nine yearlings, with an average price of around $180,000, Jeff Heiss explained.
“There’s money left over for care of the horse throughout its life, all the training fees, and if you make some money in the purses as things go on, maybe at the end there’s a little left for you,” he said. “But the first question Jerry Crawford, who runs Donegal, asked us is, ‘Do you expect to make money doing this?’ We said, ‘No, this is horse racing, an expensive hobby.’
“It’s been unbelievable. It’s kind of all new to us — beginner’s luck. But we did our research on the Donegal group beforehand. I have a friend who has a buddy who has been in the group for a while. So far, so good.”
Next up for Mo Donegal
A sort of midseason for the thoroughbred racing calendar comes after the Triple Crown races in May and June and well before November’s Breeders’ Cup. And one of the key summer races is The Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park on July 23.
“I’m going to put my two cents in to run in the Haskell, but I’m one of many [owners],” Heiss said.
Indeed, Donegal Racing recently sold a significant stake in Mo Donegal to wealthy businessman and horseman Mike Repole, who was interviewed on NBC after Saturday’s race as the horse’s owner and called himself “Mike from Queens.”
All four of Mo Donegal’s wins have come in New York, and the prestigious Travers Stakes takes place on Aug. 27 at Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Local owner headed for Haskell
Even if Mo Donegal can’t make it to the Haskell, the Jersey Shore likely will be represented by longtime former Ocean Township resident Al Gold and his horse Cyberknife.
That horse took Sunday’s Grade 3 Matt Winn race at Churchill Downs, following up on a win in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby on April 2. (Sandwiched in between was a disappointing 18th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby.) After the Winn, Gold indicated a desire to finally have a horse in a race at Monmouth Park, where he spent much of his adult life.
Also expected to enter is Jack Christopher, following the horse’s 10-length triumph in the Grade 1 Woody Stephens on the Belmont Stakes undercard on Saturday.
And what about Bob Baffert, who has trained a record eight Haskell winners — but who is in the midst of a 90-day suspension following the positive drug test of Medina Spirit that led to the horse’s disqualification after an apparent 2021 Kentucky Derby victory? The suspension ends almost three weeks before the Haskell, so it’s possible Baffert could make a somewhat controversial return with a top horse or two.
Photo: Nancy Rokos/Bucks County Courier Times