By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
The $1 million Haskell S.
(G1) at Monmouth Park is always a great race, pitting Triple Crown alumni
against each other in a 1 1/8-mile test of speed and stamina. Throw in the
typical mix of newcomers hoping to surprise the veterans, and you have a fun—though
typically chalky—handicapping challenge.
The 2021 Haskell has drawn
seven starters, and I could go a couple of different directions in handicapping
Normally, I would be keen to
back a horse like #1 Following Sea (3-1).
He's the type of runner I'm always excited to play—a flashy up-and comer with a
world of speed and potential. I loved his maiden win dashing six furlongs at
Oaklawn Park, where he carved out a fast pace before kicking clear to crush
next-out winner Happymac by 5 3/4 lengths. And I was even more impressed by his
romp in a 6 1/2-furlong allowance against older runners at Belmont, where he
obliterated older rivals by 6 1/2 lengths with powerful speed figures.
But for a few reasons, I can't
convince myself to play Following Sea in the Haskell, at least not on top.
There are a couple of formidable stats in play that I'm unable to overlook. Did
you know every Haskell winner since at least 1981 (I didn't research back any further)
had previously won a race running one mile or farther? And 41 of the last 42
Haskell winners had previously won a stakes?
I do believe Following Sea
has star potential. He might eventually win a Grade 1 route. But the Haskell is
a tough spot for Following Sea to make his stakes and two-turn debut,
especially since he's drawn the rail in a race with two other formidable pace
First and foremost among
them is #4 Hot Rod Charlie (6-5), my
uncreative but confident top choice. He's been a force to reckon with since
stretching out around two turns on dirt, winning or placing in five consecutive
graded stakes. To recount:
Hot Rod Charlie
finished second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), beaten less than a length
by champion two-year-old Essential Quality after making an arguably premature
move into a hot pace.
Hot Rod Charlie
finished third in the Robert B. Lewis S. (G3), beaten just a neck in his
sophomore debut. The son of Oxbow was returning from three-month break and wasn't
necessarily cranked for a peak performance.
Hot Rod Charlie won
the Louisiana Derby (G2), leading essentially all the way to draw off and beat
fellow Haskell starters #6 Midnight
Bourbon (9-2) and #3 Mandaloun (2-1)
by two lengths.
Hot Rod Charlie crossed
the wire third in the Kentucky Derby (G1), beaten one length while racing
between rivals down the lane.
Hot Rod Charlie
finished second in the Belmont S. (G1), beaten just 1 1/4 lengths after setting
a fast pace on the front end. In turn, Hot Rod Charlie pulled 11 1/4 lengths
clear of third-place finisher Rombauer, who had previously won the Preakness S.
Hot Rod Charlie's Belmont
effort was massive from every perspective. If you're a fan of Brisnet Speed and
Pace ratings, he ran a 105 E1, a 107 E2, a 108 Late Pace, and a 110 Speed. Earning
triple-digit numbers in all four categories is uncommon; earning 105+ in all
four categories is especially impressive and a testament to the strength of Hot
Rod Charlie's performance.
Some will question whether
Hot Rod Charlie can repeat the feat in the Haskell, but I'm optimistic he'll
produce a winning race. He's trained sharply since the Belmont, and trainer
Doug O'Neill expects Hot Rod Charlie to be up and on the pace again, a positive
since Hot Rod Charlie's best efforts have come when setting or pressing the early
tempo. I'm also interested to see Hot Rod Charlie drop his blinkers; perhaps
having a clearer view of his rivals will give the dark bay colt a little more tenacity
in close battles.
In short, I think Hot Rod
Charlie still has upside for the second half of the season, and I'm picking him
to secure a breakthrough Grade 1 win in the Haskell.
For the minor awards, Mandaloun
and Midnight Bourbon are the obvious choices. Mandaloun edged Hot Rod Charlie
by half a length when crossing the wire second in the Kentucky Derby, while
Midnight Bourbon exits a respectable runner-up effort in the Preakness.
But one longshot worth
considering is the stretch-running #2
Antigravity (30-1). Granted, his speed figures rank on the slow side, but
the son of First Samurai boasts a 2-for-2 record at Monmouth Park and brings an
advantageous late-running style to the mix. The Haskell seems destined to
unfold at a fairly rapid clip, with Following Sea, Hot Rod Charlie, Midnight
Bourbon, and Mandaloun all preferring to race on or near the lead. If even one
of the "big four" falters from their early exertions, Antigravity can pick up
the pieces and secure a spot in the superfecta.
Now it's your turn! Who do
you like in the Haskell?
Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contests page—there's a new challenge every week!
J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, 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.