Looking for a Longshot in the Haskell Invitational

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Guess what? I'm picking Golden Brown to win the $1 million Haskell Invitational (gr. I) on Sunday at Monmouth Park.

I figured I might as well state that right off the top, since it will probably require the remainder of this blog post to outline my reasoning in a way that will convince you that I actually believe he has a chance to post the upset.

My thought process begins with my opinion that the field for the 2018 Haskell is not the strongest in recent memory. I don't think anyone will argue that the recently retired Triple Crown winner Justify was clearly the most talented member of this foal crop, and in his absence, the Haskell field is comprised primarily of horses that Justify defeated soundly in the past.

I am also of the opinion that Triple Crown winners are more likely to emerge in years when the overall talent level of the top three-year-old dirt horses is less than stellar. In other words, I think the fact that Justify won the Triple Crown hints that his main rivals in the series might not have been the toughest group overall, though obviously this opinion could prove to be thoroughly unfounded. We'll learn more when these colts face older horses later in the season.

Even still, I do have a lot of respect for Good Magic, the 6-5 favorite on the morning line for the Haskell. If Justify is the most accomplished member of this foal crop, then Good Magic has to be considered the clear runner-up at this point. Thanks to a decisive victory in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), he was named the champion two-year-old male of 2017, and his form this season is more than solid. Three starts back, he won the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II) in workmanlike fashion, then finished a game second behind Justify in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), which was arguably the best effort of his career.

Two weeks later, Good Magic took on Justify again in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) and ran a gallant race in defeat. After engaging with Justify is a prolonged and heated battle for the lead, Good Magic faded only slightly in the final furlong to finish fourth by just one length.

But how much did Good Magic's Triple Crown efforts take out of him? Both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness were contested over sloppy, sealed tracks that were testing on the competitors, and Good Magic ran flat-out hard in the Preakness while changing up his running style and attempting to take the race to Justify right from the start.

At the same time, I wonder if the ten-week gap between the Preakness and the Haskell could be tricky for Good Magic. Chad Brown trained this colt perfectly to peak in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the Kentucky Derby, Good Magic's two best races to date, and I don't think it's a coincidence that both races marked the third start of Good Magic's seasonal form cycle. The gap between the Preakness and the Haskell could be more problematic—it's not long enough to be truly considered time off following his strenuous Triple Crown efforts, but it's long enough that I question whether Good Magic will be fully cranked for the Haskell, especially with races like the Travers Stakes (gr. I) and the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) looming on the horizon.

The bottom line is this—while I view Good Magic as a deserving favorite in the Haskell and expect him to give a very good account of himself, I don't view him as unbeatable, which is what his reputation (and morning line odds) suggest. If he's at something less than his absolute best, I don't think he holds much of an edge over this field and could be vulnerable to an upset.

I'm inclined to side against second choice Bravazo as well, and for many of the same reasons. His career-best effort came when finishing second in the Preakness Stakes, ahead of Good Magic, but he did take advantage of the Justify/Good Magic pace duel that day and subsequently faltered when fading to sixth place in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).

Core Beliefs and Lone Sailor, separated by just a nose when finishing 1-2 in the Ohio Derby (gr. III) last month, would be the obvious contenders to step up and take advantage if Good Magic and Bravazo falter. But Lone Sailor could only finish fifth with a great setup in the Preakness and enjoyed another perfect trip in the Ohio Derby, and while Core Beliefs ran a big race in the Ohio Derby—overcoming a wide trip to battle on and win in game fashion—the race did not come back particularly fast on the Beyer speed figure scale.

Navy Commander won the Long Branch Stakes in gate-to-wire fashion at Monmouth three weeks ago, but he benefited from setting extremely slow fractions of :25.79, :51.57, and 1:15.55 and is unlikely to receive such an ideal setup in the Haskell. In contrast, Roaming Union was part of an honest pace in the Pegasus Stakes on June 17th at Monmouth, but was still beaten a neck at the wire while running the final five-sixteenths of a mile in about :34 4/5, a very slow fraction that led to a modest final time and a Beyer of just 85.

So if you're following my train of thought, you can hopefully understand why I'm tempted to go way outside the box with Golden Brown. In my opinion, there's a lot to like. For starters, he's a fresh face in career-best form, though his recent efforts have been on grass. For another thing, several of his recent runs have come against older horses (and tough older horses at that), muddying his form a bit and guaranteeing that he'll start at a good price.

Golden Brown first caught my eye when he finished a strong second in the Dan Horn Handicap going 8.5 furlongs over the Monmouth Park turf course on June 17th, rallying fast to finish just a half-length behind Irish Strait. Don't forget, Irish Strait is a very capable graded stakes competitor, and he beat the talented Synchrony in the Red Bank Stakes (gr. III) at Monmouth last year.

Subsequently, Golden Brown returned to his own age group for the nine-furlong Kent Stakes (gr. III) at Delaware Park and ran a huge race, unleashing a strong kick in the homestretch to roll past the leaders and prevail by 1 ¾ lengths. The effort looks solid on paper, but visually, it was exceptional—Golden Brown won with complete authority and seemed to be just getting going.

The fact that Golden Brown showed no hesitation winning over nine furlongs is appealing, and it's not as though he has no experience racing on dirt. Quite to the contrary, he won a six-furlong allowance race against older horses over the Monmouth main track in May, and he broke his maiden over the dirt track at Parx. You can question the caliber of competition that he faced, but it's hard to ignore that he's run quite well sprinting on dirt.

Quite simply, I'm curious to see what Golden Brown can do while running long on dirt for the first time. In terms of speed figures, he needs to step up his game, but then again, the switch in surfaces could potentially trigger a career-best effort. Call it a hunch, or call it taking a chance with a longshot, but if I'm correct that Good Magic is vulnerable and the rest of the Haskell field isn't all that tough, I think Golden Brown has a legitimate chance to upset this race at a very big price.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Haskell Invitational?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.

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