2015 Haskell Invitational Preview

This year’s edition of the Haskell boasts a $1,750,000 purse, up from $1,000,000 last year, as well as a Win And You’re In bid into the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  The purse increase was announced just Wednesday afternoon, less than twenty-four hours after the entry box closed.  The gambit to find runners willing to take on Triple Crown winner AMERICAN PHAROAH worked, to an extent.  Eight horses passed the entry box, more runners than we will see in other three-year-old stakes this weekend such as the Jim Dandy (GII) and the Curlin.  It was especially effective in loading up Todd Pletcher’s van; in addition to COMPETITIVE EDGE, Pletcher also entered a pair of last-minute entries owned by Mike Repole, DON’TBETWITHBRUNO and NONNA’S BOY.  (NONNA’S BOY, however, scratched on race day; this leaves a field of seven.)

The Haskell Invitational took its name from Amory L. Haskell.  A businessman who worked in such diverse industries as zinc, glass, and automobiles, he took a prominent role in lobbying for the legalization of pari-mutuel gambling on horse racing in New Jersey.  There had been a history of horse racing on the Jersey Shore; an incarnation of Monmouth Park opened in 1870, with a renovated version opening in 1882.  However, New Jersey outlawed betting on horse racing in 1894.  Haskell’s side won the fight to bring it back in 1939.  Though World War II intervened, the effort eventually bore fruit.  Haskell took the helm of the newly created Monmouth Park Jockey Club in 1945, Monmouth Park reopened in 1946, with Haskell at the helm until his death in 1966.

Two years later, Monmouth inaugurated the Amery L. Haskell Handicap, a 1 1/8 mile dirt race for runners aged three and up.  It was then called the Monmouth Invitational Handicap until 1981.  That year, it was renamed the Haskell for good and restricted to three-year-old runners.  AMERICAN PHAROAH will be the first Triple Crown winner to run in the Haskell, though the sire of a Triple Crown winner finished ninth in the very first Haskell: Exclusive Native, who went on to sire 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed.

Point Given gives trainer Bob Baffert his first Haskell victory in 2001. Baffert goes for his eighth Haskell win this year.

NBC will broadcast the Haskell Invitational this Sunday from 5:00-6:00pm EDT.  As with all racing at Monmouth, video is also available on the racetrack’s website.  Horse Racing Radio Network will also broadcast live from Monmouth, with audio available on their website.

In addition to the Haskell, Picks and Ponderings dives into the four graded stakes races on Saturday’s card at Saratoga: the Vanderbilt (GI), the Jim Dandy (GII), the Bowling Green (GII), and the Amsterdam (GII).  Furthermore, Paul Mazur previews the pair of polytrack sprint stakes on Saturday’s Arlington card, the Addison Cammack Handicap and the Isaac Murphy Handicap.

Edited August 2 to reflect the scratch of NONNA’S BOY.

Race 12: William Hill Haskell Invitational Stakes (GI), three-year-olds, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 5:52pm EDT

AMERICAN PHAROAH has done everything asked of him this year.  He galloped in both of his preps at Oaklawn.  He proved in the Kentucky Derby that he could stalk the pace, and that he could pull off a grittier sort of win.  He danced through the slop in the Preakness.  He carried his speed and his fluid stride for a mile and half in the Belmont, to ace a test so many have failed.   After several weeks of whistle-stop touring and pats from the media, AMERICAN PHAROAH has gotten back down to business.  His coat is shiny, he is burning up the worktab, and he looks ready to run well in the Haskell.

Though reducing a Triple Crown winner to past performance lines feels disrespectful somehow, we must do it.  AMERICAN PHAROAH may be part of history, but he remains a racehorse in training, and will face seven other racehorses on Saturday.  Against the group he faces Sunday, he looks strong on paper.  His early pace numbers compare well with the other frontrunning types in this race (COMPETITIVE EDGE and MR. JORDAN), and he proved in the Derby that he does not need the lead.  Despite being a frontrunning type himself, his late pace also compares well with the late-running typesHe showed in the Rebel that he could fire fresh off of a layoff.  Not only does trainer Bob Baffert have a 30% strike rate with shippers, but he has had a hammerlock on the Haskell in recent times.  His charges have won four of the last five iterations, and seven total.  Rider Victor Espinoza has tasted Haskell glory as well; he rode War Emblem for Baffert in 2002.

In short, AMERICAN PHAROAH should not disappoint in his return to the track.  Even at 1/5 on the morning line, no one appeals enough to take a stand against him.

Among the rest, UPSTART has the most going for him.  He had nothing in the Kentucky Derby.  However, he finished no worse than third in his previous seven starts, and should be fast enough to content with anyone in this field save AMERICAN PHAROAH at his best.  .  His running style should suit this race nicely, as well.  A stalking to midpack type, UPSTART should be able to keep the frontrunners in his sights, but not get so far off that he has too much to do late.  He has been working well over the last month.  Though rider Jose Ortiz does not come down to ride, he does get Joe Bravo in the irons: a solid rider in his own right, and one striking at 18% this Monmouth meet.  For a third selection, it was close between MR. JORDAN and KEEN ICE.  KEEN ICE fits on class, and fires reliably enough that he should get up for a piece.  However, speed tends to be good enough at Monmouth that MR. JORDAN appeals slightly more.  A speed horse (albeit one with an ability to fight) in his earliest races, he showed a new dimension last out in the Pegasus Stakes (GIII).  In that race, he sat off of Tekton early, made his move turning for home, and prevailed despite drifting around a lot down the stretch.  He will have to fix the drifting to have a chance against these better horses in the Haskell, but some of his speed numbers fit, and he has two wins over the Monmouth dirt already.  He also gets 25% local jockey Paco Lopez in the irons; he has won all three times he has ridden MR. JORDAN.



#1 UPSTART (6/1)

#5 MR. JORDAN (15/1)

Longshot:  #7 TOP CLEARANCE (30/1) makes his stakes debut here, and certainly has not picked the easiest spot to do so.  However, he looks to be improving at the right time.  It took him three tries to break his maiden, but he followed that up with an allowance win last out going two turns on the Monmouth dirt.  As such, he has already proven that he can handle the course well.  Though he loses rider Paco Lopez from that last-out win (he rides MR. JORDAN instead), Abel Castellano has the call.  Castellano has been winning at a 19% clip this Monmouth meet, and does his stronger work in route races.  Trainer Wayne Catalano has also been choosy with his placings at Monmouth this year, with seven wins and seven more on-the-board finishes in 21 starts.  TOP CLEARANCE would need to take a step forward from his last as well as have some subpar performances in front of him in order to win this race.  But, if he gets that sort of help, he is in the right improving form to run well at a very long price.


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