Yes, we’ll be watching racing from Del Mar and Saratoga this weekend, but it’s also time to get reacquainted with the top 3-year-olds as they return to compete for wide-open divisional honors in the second half of the season.
The first stop for several prominent colts you’ll remember from the Triple Crown chase will be Saturday’s $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.
The 1 1/8th-mile race for 3-year-olds, which will be broadcast from 2 to 3 p.m. on KSNV-3, drew a compact field of seven that includes the runners-up from all three Triple Crown races — Hot Rod Charlie (second in the Belmont Stakes), Mandaloun (second in the Kentucky Derby) and Midnight Bourbon (second in the Preakness).
Essential Quality, the Belmont Stakes winner and current division leader in most handicappers’ estimation, will sit out this race in favor of the $600,000 Jim Dandy Stakes on July 31 at Saratoga, where he might face Preakness winner Rombauer for the second time.
His eventual destination, along with many of the other top 3-year-olds, is expected to be the $1.25 million Travers Stakes on Aug. 28, which could go a long way toward settling divisional honors.
Meanwhile, Kentucky Derby “winner” Medina Spirit — still facing a likely disqualification after testing positive for a prohibited substance in postrace testing — was deemed not ready for the Haskell by trainer Bob Baffert. The Hall of Fame trainer has not said where the colt will run next, but he now has additional options that include the Jim Dandy after a federal judge in New York on Wednesday overturned his suspension by the New York Racing Association over the Derby positive and other recent missteps.
Along with being the first major 3-year-old race (sorry, Ohio and Indiana derbies) after the Triple Crown, the Haskell will be one of the most prominent races — along with the Grade 1 United Nations Stakes earlier on the 14-race Monmouth card — to be run under New Jersey’s controversial new “no whip” regulations.
There have been some strange outcomes in Monmouth races under the rule, but another one here could focus heat on the industry to come up with a universal solution that bettors can have confidence in.
As far as the race goes, my money will be on Midnight Bourbon. He’s been knocking at the door since his victory in the Lecomte Stakes and has a favorable pace scenario if new rider Paco Lopez can get him to relax just behind likely pacesetter Following Sea and get first jump on his Triple Crown rivals.
A bit more on the ruling on Baffert’s appeal:
U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon of the Eastern District of New York found that the NYRA’s suspension of the trainer caused him significant harm and rejected the association’s claim that it was entitled to bar the trainer through its private property rights. Because the nonprofit is essentially an arm of the state government, she ruled, the move violated Baffert’s right to due process.
NYRA President and CEO Dave O’Rourke said in a statement that the association is reviewing the ruling “to determine our legal options and next steps.” He also noted that the judge “upheld NYRA’s authority to exclude individuals from its racetracks … (and) rejected Baffert’s argument that NYRA had no legal authority to take the action that it did.”
Ellis Starr’s Haskell Stakes analysis
Midnight Bourbon intrigues this handicapper in this year’s Haskell Stakes. Midnight Bourbon got the jump on many a Kentucky Derby contender when winning the Lecomte Stakes in January following three months off, easily beating Mandaloun by a length. Following that he finished third behind Mandaloun in the Risen Star Stakes then second behind Hot Rod Charlie in the Louisiana Derby, a race in which Mandaloun checked in sixth. In the Kentucky Derby, Midnight Bourbon was bumped early and four wide on both turns but managed to rally from 12th to sixth at the end while his two foes each got much better trips. Returning two weeks later in the Preakness, which both the other two passed, Midnight Bourbon stalked the pacesetter in second before making the lead and opening up with an eighth of a mile to go before being run down by Rombauer. Still, Midnight Bourbon was two lengths clear of Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit and much further ahead of the other seven horses. Considering his breeding, it is no surprise Midnight Bourbon fits at the top level and two of his half-brothers (same dam) have had tremendous success at Monmouth. One of those is Pirates Punch, who won both the Iselin Stakes and Salvator Mile Stakes last year. More importantly, the other is 2017 Haskell winner Girvin, who earned more than $1.6 million in his career. With consistent Equibase Speed Figures going back to the Lecomte of 99, 95, 96, 99 and 98, it is conceivable Midnight Bourbon could be that much more mature with two months off and can turn the tables on both Hot Rod Charlie and Mandaloun to win this year’s Haskell Stakes.
Mandaloun really needs no talking up as his 4-1-1 record in seven career starts speaks for itself. Ignoring the Louisiana Derby where he finished sixth and considering he rebounded nicely for second in the Kentucky Derby following that race, Mandaloun has showed up every time he has run. Following the Derby, Mandaloun was very game in securing a neck victory last month in the local prep for the Haskell, the Pegasus Stakes, and certainly familiarity with the track has its benefits. Having earned a 110 figure in the Derby then following that up with a 109 figure in the Pegasus, Mandaloun should be expected to run another “A” race good enough to win in this race.
Hot Rod Charlie has a tremendous competitive spirit, finishing no worse than third in all seven route races in his career, the last five of those graded stakes. After proving his runner-up effort at 94-to-1 odds in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall was no fluke when winning the Louisiana Derby two races later in March, the colt was third in the Kentucky Derby (109 figure) before his runner up effort in the Belmont Stakes (108 figure) last month. The one knock Hot Rod Charlie may have, however, is he doesn’t have any type of explosive kick. In the last quarter mile of his past six races, he has not really passed a horse. For example, in the Derby he was third for the last part of the race and in the Belmont he was second for the last quarter mile. Blinkers are removed for the Haskell which may help him find that added kick in the stretch when he sees his opponents better and certainly Hot Rod Charlie has earned his place among the top 3-year-olds of 2021 and might make his mark in this year’s Haskell.
Honorable mention goes to Following Sea, who finished second in his debut in March before authoritatively winning his other two races. Earning a 110 figure competitive with the top contenders in this race while geared down to a 5 3/4-length win in April, in only the second start of his career, Following Sea won just as easily by 6 1/2 lengths last month with a 105 figure effort. Going from a sprint (6 1/2 furlongs) to a 9 furlong race is a tall order, but Following Sea is now in the hands of Todd Pletcher so there is no question he is ready for this test. As to pedigree, sire Runhappy’s progeny have won 11 of 55 route races to date, though few have contested stakes. If not for the lack of experience in route races, Following Sea might have been my top choice to win this race.
The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures: Antigravity (97); Basso (82); and Pickin’ Time (91).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.