By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Saturday, July 20th will be a busy day of
racing across North America, with plenty of action to keep an eye on at
Saratoga and Del Mar. But by far the most anticipated race of the weekend is
the $1 million Haskell Invitational (gr.
I) at Monmouth Park.
This 1 1/8-mile race will pit a small but high-quality
field of three-year-olds against each other in the division's first Grade 1
test since the Triple Crown concluded. Who will prevail in this pivotal summer
challenge? Let's take a horse-by-horse look at the field:
King for a Day
King for a Day isn't one of the most recognizable names
in racing. Trained by Todd Pletcher, this son of Uncle Mo missed the 2019
Triple Crown and has yet to win a graded stakes race. But could King for a Day
actually be the most likely winner of the Haskell? That's the direction I'm leaning.
King for a Day showed potential as a juvenile, defeating
the future graded stakes runners Tacitus and Kentucky Wildcat in a maiden race
at Aqueduct before finishing fourth in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II)
at Churchill Downs. I was impressed by King for a Day's performance in the
latter race since he was beaten just two lengths after making a wide, premature
move to take the lead in the stretch.
Following a six-month layoff, King for a Day returned to
action in the 1 1/16-mile Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico, where he tracked a
quick pace before seizing command to win by 2 ½ lengths. The quality of the
race was reiterated when runner-up Tone Broke returned to finish third in the
Queen's Plate Stakes and fifth-place finisher Top Line Growth came back to win
the Iowa Derby via disqualification.
But King for a Day really stepped up his game in the 1
1/16-mile Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth last month. Sent off as the distant 5-1
second choice behind 1-20 favorite Maximum Security, the disqualified winner of
the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), King for a Day hounded Maximum Security from start
to finish and gamely wore down his rival in the final furlong to win by a length.
King for a Day posted a 102 Beyer speed figure in the
Pegasus, suggesting he has the talent to be a serious player in the
three-year-old division this summer. Unlike the Triple Crown veterans, King for
a Day is fresh and lightly-raced, so there's no telling how much he might
improve over his next couple of starts.
I'm also encouraged by the tactical versatility King for
a Day has displayed. Although he has early speed, he's also willing to relax
off the pace, which could come in handy in this speed-filled edition of the
Haskell. I hope to see King for a Day rate behind the leaders, launch a rally
on the far turn, and take command in the homestretch to complete his ascent
into the upper echelon of the three-year-old division.
Winner of the 1 1/16-mile Long Branch Stakes at Monmouth
Park, Joevia outran expectations in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) to set the pace
and finish third, beaten just 1 ¾ lengths. But Joevia enjoyed relatively
uncontested leads in both races (particularly the Belmont Stakes), and a very
different scenario figures to unfold in the Haskell. Joevia is one of four
runners who figure to vie for early supremacy, and since Joevia has drawn the
innermost post position among the quartet, he could face significant pace
pressure right from the start. With this difficult task looming large, I'll generally
oppose Joevia and only consider playing him on the bottom of deeper trifecta or
Spun to Run
After losing his first four starts sprinting, Spun to Run
stretched out around two turns and showed improvement to score maiden and
allowance victories at Parx Racing. He was an easy winner on both occasions,
but he also benefited from tracking slow fractions in races of questionable
quality. This is a big step up in class, and Spun to Run figures to find the
pace scenario more challenging while returning from a four-month layoff. For
these reason, I'll side against him.
Bethlehem Road has plenty of tactical speed and dominated
his first three starts at Parx Racing, most notably scoring by 1 ½ lengths in
the Parx Spring Derby. But when Bethlehem Road stepped up in class for the Ohio
Derby (gr. III) at Thistledown, he was never a match for the top contenders and
finished fourth, 13 ¾ lengths behind the third-place runner. Bethlehem Road
will face even tougher company in the Haskell, and the task of dueling for the
lead against Joevia, Mucho Gusto, and Maximum Security is imposing. Bethlehem
Road can certainly be a pace factor in the Haskell, but I'll oppose him in my
Since 2000, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has run 11
horses in the Haskell Invitational. The results? Eight victories and three
second-place finishes. Any time Baffert ships in a horse for the Haskell, it's
wise to pay attention.
But six of Baffert's Haskell winners were veterans of the
Triple Crown, while two of his three losers were relatively inexperienced
runners who skipped the Triple Crown races. Mucho Gusto falls into the latter
category, and while he's run well this year—scoring victories in the Robert B.
Lewis Stakes (gr. III), Lazero Barrera Stakes (gr. III), and Affirmed Stakes
(gr. III)—he's also given the impression of being a miler at heart. When he
endeavored to stretch his speed over 1 1/8 miles in the Sunland Derby (gr.
III), he weakened to finish a distant third.
Granted, Mucho Gusto had to duel for the lead through
quick fractions in the Sunland Derby, but the same scenario could well unfold in
the Haskell. While I respect Baffert's record in this race, I don't trust Mucho
Gusto to carry his speed 1 1/8 miles against a field of this caliber.
Everfast isn't the most consistent horse in training, but
he's occasionally fired off big performances, most notably when rallying from
far back to finish second in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I). Everfast did benefit
from a quick pace in the Preakness—most of the speed horses fell apart down the
lane—but even with a less ideal setup in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), he ran an
even race to finish seventh, beaten just 3 ¼ lengths.
There should be plenty of pace in the Haskell to set up
Everfast's late run, and even if he doesn't rally all the way to the winner's
circle, he could certainly crack the exacta at a nice price. If he does, he
would be following in the footsteps of his Dale Romans-trained stablemate Keen
Ice, who capitalized on a fast pace to finish second at 18-1 behind Triple
Crown winner American Pharoah in the 2015 Haskell.
Trained by Jason Servis, Maximum Security was nothing
less than brilliant in his first five starts. Following three easy victories
against maiden claiming and starter allowance company, the front-running son of
New Year's Day dominated the Florida Derby (gr. I) in gate-to-wire fashion and
crossed the wire first in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), only to be disqualified from
the latter victory for ducking out and causing interference on the far turn.
But Maximum Security's Derby performance seemed to take
something out of him. He was reportedly lackluster in his post-Derby training,
to the extent that Servis almost skipped the colt's scheduled run in the
Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth. In the end, Maximum Security did compete in the
Pegasus and ran a decent race—he stumbled at the start, recovered to set the
pace, and was ultimately beaten just a length by King for a Day while
posting a 100 Beyer. But I also got the impression that Maximum Security was
simply the second-best horse on the day.
One thing seems certain, Maximum Security won't enjoy an
easy lead in the Haskell. He'll either have to sprint hard to beat his pace
rivals to the lead, or else employ rating tactics while racing outside of
runners. There's no doubt Maximum Security is a talented horse—his four
consecutive triple-digit Beyers speak of his quality. But after coming up short
against King for a Day in the Pegasus, I wonder if his busy spring season might
be catching up to him a bit. Considering he ran a hard race in the Pegasus just
six weeks after his huge effort in the Derby, could regression be a possibility
I am of the opinion that the Pegasus Stakes marked a
changing of the guard. Maximum Security
was the star of the spring, but King for
a Day had his number at Monmouth, and I expect King for a Day to maintain
his advantage on Saturday.
I believe Maximum Security could be vulnerable to
regression in the Haskell, so although I'll use him in my vertical exotics, I'm
just as optimistic about Everfast and
Mucho Gusto hitting the board.
Should Maximum Security finish out of the money at a short price, the payoffs
could be lucrative, even in this small field.
First: King for a Day
Third: Mucho Gusto
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Haskell
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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.