Race of the Week: The Haskell Invitational Handicap
The end of July marks exciting times in thoroughbred racing as the commencement of the second half of the three-year old season leads us to the much coveted Travers Stakes on Saturday August 23rd in Saratoga Springs. It is the time in the that time when we get another glimpse of the top runners from the Triple Crown races as they take on newcomers whom were either injured in late spring or are late bloomers. The Jim Dandy run on Saturday in New York functions as one of the top three-year old prep races for the “Midsummer Derby,” as does the premier race on New Jersey’s racing calendar, the Haskell.
The Haskell Invitational Handicap is a Grade I event for three-year olds run at a mile and an eighth. The stakes race has been run at Monmouth Park Racetrack in Long Branch, New Jersey since it was inaugurated in 1968 and is named after former President and Chairman of the Board of Directors at Monmouth Park, Amory Haskell who passed away in 1966. Originally the Haskell was open to three-year olds and up, but in 1981 it was modified to be for three-year olds only. They began to run it under stakes conditions starting in 2006.
The race now officially called the Resorts Casino & Hotel Haskell Invitational after the Atlantic City based casino signed a five-year partnership with Monmouth Park to become the official sponsor, has become a major event on the three-year old calendar and a de facto prep race for the $1.25 million dollar Travers. The inaugural edition of the invitation only event was won by now deceased Balustrade under jockey Eric Walsh. Since the original edition, the event has seen a significant boost to both its purse and its prestige. With three-year old stars like Wajima, Deputed Testamony, Bet Twice, Forty Niner, Holy Bull, Serena’s Song and Skip Away winning the race over the first thirty years of existence, it is clear that Monmouth Park officials have not needed to be concerned about a shortage of stellar equine athletes.
The start of the new millennium has seen sustained support of the event from the nation’s top barns as they continue to ship into Oceanport, New Jersey from all parts of the United States. Winners since the turn of the century have included the first horse since the event’s inception to win the Preakness, the Belmont and later the Travers, Point Given, as well as fellow Thoroughbred Corporation owned colt War Emblem. 2008 continued the amazing run of talent at the Haskell as Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Big Brown rolled home under jockey Kent Desormeaux. The 2009 Haskell may be the most memorable as Stonestreet Stables immortal filly Rachel Alexandra won in an amazing 1:47.21 under veteran rider Calvin Borel. From there, world-class trainer Bob Baffert took the next three versions of the event with Lookin at Lucky, Coil and the fan favorite, Paynter.
The field for this year’s event appears stronger and much more intriguing than the one Verrazano took down last year under veteran New York rider John Velazquez. Much of the intrigue is due to the presence of superstar filly Untapable. The Steve Asmussen trained daughter of Tapit has rolled over her female competition in all four of her 2014 starts including a nine and a half length score in last month’s Grade I Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park. While there has been brief discussion as early as her victory in the Fairground Oaks in late March to run Untapable against the boys, the connections have remained cautious in their plan for arguably the most talented three-year filly since Rachel. Fortunately for racing fans, Asmussen and his team have decided to take their chances on Sunday as we embark on the second half of the 2014-racing season. Time will tell whether Untapable is amongst the truly immortal young ladies, but regardless of the outcome it makes Sunday’s race extremely fascinating.
In addition to the presence of the best three-year old filly in the States, the Haskell also has drawn some of the best three-year old colts including Bob Baffert trained Bayern. This $320,000 son of Offlee Wild ran a career best effort in the seven-furlong Woody Stephens on Belmont Stakes day when she buried a quality field of thirteen sprinters in front running fashion. Martin Garcia replaces the injured Gary Stevens on this speedy Kaleem Shah owned runner, who will most definitely be a part of the early pace scenario. The distance and ability to deal with other quick ones are the main questions for Bayern on Sunday, but many are expecting big things from him over the rest of 2014.
The rest of the nine-horse group is solid as well and will present more value to the horseplayer than Bayern and Untapable. Included in this collection of runners is Manuel Azpurua’s Social Inclusion. The Florida based son of Pioneer of the Nile has been disappointing since his monster win against Honor Code this winter at Gulfstream Park. Distant third place efforts in the Preakness and the Woody Stephens, as well as potential health issues have made many top racing minds wonder if this horse can win outside of Florida. Wildcat Red is another Florida based colt that also looks to prove he can win outside of the “Sunshine State.” After a stellar start to his three-year old campaing, including wins in the Hutcheson Stakes and the Fountain of Youth and a narrow loss in the Grade I Florida Derby, this son of D’Wildcat ran terribly in the Kentucky Derby. Trainer Jose Garoffalo decided to give this one a seven-week freshening before bringing him back in the non-graded Quality Road Stakes at Gulfstream on June 28th. Jockey Luis Saez took him to the lead at 2-5 and never looked back in a ten-length victory that included Ohio Derby winner East Hall. He draws outside of the other speed today which should help, but he must prove he is capable of defeating any field let alone a Grade I group outside of his home at Gulfstream Park.
Medal Count for Spendthrift Farm has had a strong three-year old campaign and may prove to be as talented as any horse in this group. His second place effort over Keeneland’s all weather surface in the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes, as well as his third place effort in the mile and a half Belmont Stakes illustrate the versatility of this son of Dynaformer. He is our favorite runner in the field, but the major question for this fine looking horse on Sunday is will he take to the unique Monmouth Park track. It will be wise to watch the races preceding the Haskell to see how late runners are faring because he certainly has the talent and pedigree to run these down late. It is just a much different surface than the ones he has previously succeeded on.
Other than the high profile runners exiting Triple Crown races, there are a few others in here that may be improving enough to compete with the favorites. Albano for Larry Jones was shelved for close to three months after a disappointing effort in the Louisiana Derby in late March, but came back to win impressively in the Grade III Pegasus over this track last month. The talent is there for this son of Istan if he can get the distance and work out a trip under jockey Kerwin Clark. I like the looks of this one moving forward, but Sunday will be the true “acid test.”
Encryption, Irish You Well, and Just Call Kenny round out the field and all exit the $105,000 Long Branch Stakes run on July 5th. While I am not a fan of Encryption, especially considering the rail draw in a race packed with other speed, both Irish You Well and Just Call Kenny are extremely intriguing at what should be big prices. Irish You Well is 2 for 2 over the racetrack including the victory in the Long Branch and has shown the ability to rate and close over the Monmouth Park surface. He gets a big rider upgrade to New York based Jose Lezcano and could be rolling late. Just Call Kenny ran an extremely impressive second in his first race stretching out for trainer Patrick McBurney. The Virginia bred son of Jump Start makes a big jump in class here, but has shown a lot of talent and could be there in the end if he does not regress or have distance issues.
I am not crazy about this race from a wagering perspective since about half the runners have things to like as well as things to be concerned with. For that reason, I will go light and use value horses. If Bayern has truly improved enough to get the distance he is probably the likely winner, but my initial belief that this horse is a sprinter at heart prevent me from getting involved with him at a short price. The two Florida based runners have not proven they can compete with this level nor win outside of their home state, so I will toss them. Untapable is 2-1 on the morning line, but I suspect he will be a bit overlooked in the wagering, as very few handicappers seem to be on her bandwagon. I know she can get the distance so we will use her with our price horses. Medal Count could get a strong pace to run into, but I just cannot see her style being effective over this course. My heart will root for him, but the gambler in me will hope he does not fire best shot so we can get a big price on him in the near future.
I am going to construct my tickets today around Albano and Irish You Well. Both horses have had success over this course and appear to be coming into the race in top form. Both will certainly be solid prices and potential overlays and have a solid chance to be in the exacta. I will not be surprised if the favorites run big, but I cannot support them at their projected prices.
1st- (3) Albano
2nd- (4) Irish You Well
3rd- (7) Untapable
4th- (2) Bayern
5th- (5) Just Call Kenny
PLACE/SHOW on #3 Albano
PLACE/SHOW on #4 Irish You Well
EXACTA BOX 2+3+4+5
EXACTA BOX 3+4+5+7
Scott Shapiro is a professional horse racing handicapper, lead analyst and editor for shapperdacapper.com and a contributor to DanonymousRacing.com. He lives in Denver, CO but is planning a move to the Del Mar area in 2015. He takes pride in finding vulnerable favorites and defeating them in pick four, pick five and pick six wagers. Follow him on twitter @shapperdacapper.