By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Saturday is shaping up to be
a terrific day of racing throughout the United States. Saratoga is heading into
its second weekend, with the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) serving as the
highlight. Out in California, the action at Del Mar is heating up with the San
Clemente S. (G2).
But the star of the show on
Saturday is undoubtedly Monmouth Park, where five graded stakes are set to take
place. Chief among them is the $1 million Haskell S. (G1), a 1 1/8-mile "Win
and You're In" steppingstone to the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1).
Some bettors figure to view
the Haskell as a coronation for the undefeated #7 Jack Christopher (3-2), a brilliant speedster with four
victories from four starts. Tracking and pressing tactics routinely carry Jack
Christopher to daylight victories. He dominated the one-mile Champagne S. (G1)
at Belmont Park last fall and was breathtaking in the seven-furlong Woody
Stephens S. (G1) at Belmont last month, romping by 10 lengths in 1:21.18.
But might there be a chink
or two in Jack Christopher's armor? He's yet to race around two turns, and as a
son of Munnings out of a mare by Half Ours, his pedigree is geared toward
sprinting. It's also fair to question the caliber of competition Jack
Christopher has defeated; while he's knocked heads with some capable colts
(including Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up Pappacap), Jack Christopher
has yet to square off against top-notch route runners like the ones he'll
encounter in the Haskell.
That's why I'm going to
oppose Jack Christopher with #2 Taiba
(7-5). Triple Crown alumni routinely win the Haskell, so Taiba—exiting a
12th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby (G1)—fits the bill.
As a son of 2017 Horse of
the Year and hot young sire Gun Runner out of a mare by Flatter, Taiba is bred
to thrive over the distance of the Haskell. Indeed, he handled this 1 1/8-mile
trip with aplomb in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) during the spring, tracking a
steady pace before finishing fast down the homestretch to beat multiple graded
stakes winner Messier by 2 1/4 lengths.
Taiba has trained strongly
since his Kentucky Derby misfire and has to be respected for trainer Bob
Baffert, whose incomparable record in the Haskell includes nine wins and four
seconds from 13 starters. To put it another way, all 13 of Baffert's Haskell
starters have finished in the exacta. Six of the nine winners were Triple Crown
alumni, so Taiba is eligible to follow in the footsteps of previous
Baffert-trained Haskell winners such as Bayern (2014) and Paynter (2012), both
of whom were beaten in their classic appearances.
There's one other point
worth mentioning—the 2022 Kentucky Derby has turned out to be a remarkably productive
race. In the 2 1/2 months since the first Saturday in May, Kentucky Derby
starters have compiled impressive resumes. Mo Donegal won the Belmont S. (G1),
Tawny Port, White Abarrio, and Classic Causeway ran 1-2-3 in the Ohio Derby
(G3), Cyberknife nabbed the Matt Winn S. (G3), Charge It trounced the Dwyer S.
(G3), Classic Causeway upset the Belmont Derby (G1), Epicenter finished second
in the Preakness S. (G1), and Happy Jack won an allowance optional claimer. I
believe Taiba can add another big win to this highlight reel.
Who are the other main
players in the Haskell? Certainly we have to respect Florida Derby (G1) winner #6 White Abarrio (5-1), though all four
of his victories have come at Gulfstream Park, and a recent runner-up effort in
the Ohio Derby (G3) was a bit shy of his best effort.
A more versatile alternative
for the minor awards is #1 Cyberknife (6-1),
who defeated a quality field (including future Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks winner
Secret Oath) in the Arkansas Derby (G1). Cyberknife faltered when finishing
18th in the Kentucky Derby (two slots behind White Abarrio), but he bounced
back nicely with a determined pace-tracking victory in the Matt Winn S. (G3) at
Churchill Downs last month.
Cyberknife won the Matt Winn
by a nose over #4 Howling Time (4-1),
no easy feat considering Howling Time is a Churchill Downs specialist with a
flashy 5-3-1-0 record over Louisville's legendary oval. But Howling Time hasn't
been as sharp over other surfaces, finishing ninth in the Fountain of Youth S.
(G2) at Gulfstream Park and eighth in the Lexington S. (G3) at Keeneland. Traveling
to Monmouth Park is a question mark for Howling Time, so Cyberknife—who has won
over three different tracks in as many states—seems likely to maintain his
advantage in the Haskell.
2nd: Jack Christopher
4th: White Abarrio
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.