Picking the Hot Horse in the Haskell

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 race.

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 players.

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. (G1).

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?


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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.

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