By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
On July 27th, Monmouth Park in New Jersey will play host to the $1,000,000 Haskell Invitational (gr. I), a traditional post-Triple Crown target for the best three-year-olds of the season. Recent starters in the Haskell have included Oxbow, Shackleford, Ruler On Ice, Lookin at Lucky, Super Saver, Rachel Alexandra, Summer Bird, Big Brown, Curlin—and those are just the starters that had previously won a Triple Crown race!
While this year’s running of the Haskell did not draw a winner of a Triple Crown race, it still promises to be among the most exciting renewals in recent memory. The reason is simple—this year’s Haskell has drawn Untapable.
To rehash her credentials is not really necessary, as she is surely one of the most well-known horses in training at this time. Even still, I should point out that she has won her last four starts (including the grade I Kentucky Oaks and the Mother Goose Stakes) by the combined margin of thirty-one lengths, while earning very strong Beyer speed figures that make her clearly the horse to beat in this race. She’s the 2-1 favorite on the morning line, but I expect her to go off at a considerably shorter price than that.
However, despite her obvious credentials, I believe she can be beaten on Sunday. In five of her seven starts in route races, she has tracked fractions of about :48 flat for a half-mile and 1:12 3/5 for six furlongs, and has won four of those races while placing a good third in the other. On the two occasions that she has encountered a fast pace—about :45 3/5 for a half-mile and 1:09 2/5 for six furlongs—she has been less impressive. Her first experience with such a fast pace came in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) last fall, in which she was losing ground on the leaders even before she got checked hard on the far turn and was eased. The other time she encountered a fast pace, she decisively defeated four rivals in the Mother Goose Stakes, but experienced a twelve-point plunge in her Beyer speed figure.
If the pace of the Haskell was expected to be slow, this would not be a concern. But unfortunately, the pace is expected to be fast—perhaps very fast.
A quick glance at the expected front-runners reveals names like Bayern, who romped to victory in the seven-furlong Woody Stephens Stakes (gr. II) last time out while posting fractions of :44.20 and 1:08.17; Social Inclusion, who chased Bayern’s quick pace in the Woody Stephens en route to third place, and who previously gave California Chrome a bit of a scare on the far turn of the Preakness Stakes; Wildcat Red, who recorded fractions of :45.91 and 1:10.38 while winning the 8.5-furlong Quality Road Stakes last time out; and Encryption, who set fractions of :47.79 and 1:12.03 on his way to a third-place finish in the Long Branch Stakes. Thus, if Untapable is to take up her usual stalking position a couple of lengths off the lead, she will have to run much faster than she is accustomed to, and that could have a major impact on her finishing kick.
So keeping this in mind—and considering the fact that Monmouth tends to play kindly toward speed—I have, to my own surprise, settled on Wildcat Red for the top spot. Of the speed horses, he is the most proven in route races, having won the Quality Road Stakes and the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) at 8.5 furlongs, in addition to being beaten a neck in the Florida Derby (gr. I) at nine furlongs. With question marks surrounding the other primary speed horses (can Bayern win at this distance? Will Social Inclusion be able to relax in the presence of other front-runners?), I believe Wildcat Red is the most likely to hang around for the finish.
I will also give strong consideration to Bayern, who has drawn post two and could very well find himself racing on the lead and on the rail, a combination that can prove very beneficial at Monmouth. His trainer, Bob Baffert, has a spectacular record in the Haskell (having won the race in 2001, 2002, 2005, 2010, 2011, and 2012), and any time he sends a horse for this race, that horse must be taken seriously.
Other horses I will be looking at are Albano, impressive winner of the Pegasus Stakes (gr. III) here at Monmouth last time out, and Just Call Kenny, who returned from a lengthy layoff to finish second by a half-length in the Long Branch Stakes at Monmouth last time out. Both colts possess good finishing kicks, and should be coming late if the pace is fast.
One colt I will most likely take a stand against is Medal Count. The majority of his success has come on turf and Polytrack, and while he did run well in the Belmont Stakes (finishing a close third in a strong renewal of the race), I think the twelve-furlong distance of the Belmont may have had more to do with his good showing than a preference for dirt. In addition, he got a wonderful trip in the Belmont—saving ground all the way around—and while it wouldn’t surprise me if he runs well on Sunday, my gut feeling is that his future is on turf and synthetic, and that he might not take to the Monmouth dirt as well.
So to recap, my selection on top is Wildcat Red, with utmost respect to Bayern. For the exotics, Untapable must be included, and I would also consider using Albano and Just Call Kenny in the lower slots of trifectas and superfectas. But all that said, from a sporting perspective, I have my fingers crossed that Untapable, Bayern, and Social Inclusion will hook up in a thrilling duel at the top of the stretch, setting up a finish that will be among the most memorable in the history of the race.
Who do you like in the Haskell?