By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
A spectacular day of racing
awaits at Monmouth Park this Saturday. Half a dozen stakes (five of them
graded) are on the agenda, led by the $1 million Haskell S. (G1) for
three-year-olds traveling 1 1/8 miles.
The Haskell often seems like
a fourth leg of the Triple Crown, and this year is no exception. The "Win and
You're In" qualifier to the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) has drawn a strong field
of eight horses, including Kentucky Derby (G1) winner #4 Mage (3-1).
Mage has compiled a strong
record since his Jan. 28 debut. A runner-up finish behind champion Forte in the
Florida Derby (G1) qualified him to the Kentucky Derby, where he rallied from
16th place behind a fast pace to prevail by one length over next-out Ohio Derby
(G3) winner Two Phil's. Other beaten rivals included future Matt Winn S. (G3)
winner Disarm, recent Los Alamitos Derby winner Reincarnate, and subsequent
Indiana Derby (G3) 1-2 finishers Verifying and Raise Cain.
You can argue that Mage
benefited from the hot pace in the Kentucky Derby, considering how horses
rallying from the back third of the field swept five of the top seven finishing
positions. But Mage was far from disgraced in the Preakness S. (G1) two weeks
later, finishing third by 2 1/4 lengths while trying to rally into a slow
early/fast late race shape that benefited gate-to-wire winner National
Mage is a logical win threat
in the Haskell, but he's facing some formidable new rivals. Chief among them is
morning line favorite #8 Arabian Knight (5-2),
my top choice even though he enters off an unorthodox preparation schedule.
Acquired for $2.3 million as
a two-year-old in training, Arabian Knight looked like a star in the making
when smashing a seven-furlong maiden special weight at Keeneland last fall. The
son of Uncle Mo led all the way to beat next-out maiden winner and future Gun
Runner S. third-place finisher Determinedly by 7 1/4 lengths in the excellent
time of 1:21.98.
Arabian Knight was even more
impressive in the Jan/ 28 Southwest S. (G3) racing 1 1/16 miles at Oaklawn Park.
After carving out quick fractions over a sloppy track, Arabian Knight drew
clear down the lane to prevail by 5 1/2 lengths over a field including future
Kentucky Derby alumni Sun Thunder and Jace's Road plus Preakness and Belmont S.
(G1) starter Red Route One.
Knight hasn't run since the Southwest, but he's been training up a storm at
Santa Anita (even posting a trio of seven-furlong workouts in recent weeks) and
has been targeting the Haskell for a while. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert
has saddled nine winners and five runners-up from 14 Haskell starters, so
anytime Baffert takes aim at this race, it's wise to sit up and take notice.
Speed typically carries well
in the Haskell (like in most U.S. dirt races), so I'm optimistic Arabian Knight
will deliver a winning run off the long layoff, dashing to the lead and
maintaining his advantage down the homestretch.
#5 Tapit Trice (3-1)
is another short-priced contender after winning the Blue Grass S. (G1) and
finishing seventh in the Kentucky Derby and third in the Belmont. But I'm
concerned that this slow-starting son of Tapit will find himself with too much
ground to close against more tactical rivals, so a spot in the trifecta might
be the ceiling for his potential.
I actually wonder if we can sneak
a higher-priced runner into the top three—perhaps #3 Salute the Stars (8-1), whose trainer (Brad Cox) has won the
last two editions of the Haskell with Mandaloun and Cyberknife.
Salute the Stars is 2-for-2
on dirt and showed a lot of promise in the 1 1/16-mile Pegasus S. at Monmouth
last month, a local prep for the Haskell. He was rank while racing off the pace
in the early going, and with a furlong remaining he trailed Louisiana Derby
(G2) winner and Kentucky Derby alumnus Kingsbarns by 4 1/2 lengths. But Salute
the Stars hit another gear down the lane and rallied boldly to win by a neck.
The son of Candy Ride still has upside, and another move forward on Saturday can
land him a strong finish in the Haskell.
1st: Arabian Knight
3rd: Salute the Stars
4th: Tapit Trice
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.