Nothing can top a Triple Crown winner racing in your signature race, but drawing the top three Kentucky Derby finishers comes pretty darn close.
That is exactly what Monmouth Park has managed to do. Last year the New Jersey track hosted Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the Haskell Invitational (GI). This year they drew Juvenile Champion and Kentucky Derby (GI) winner Nyquist, Preakness winner and Derby runner-up Exaggerator, and Gun Runner, who ran third in the Kentucky Derby and enters the Haskell off an impressive victory in the Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs five weeks ago.
Since arriving on the grounds, reports on the top trio have been good. Gun Runner arrived on Tuesday from Saratoga and will school tomorrow. Assistant trainer Scott Blasi said that the Winchell Farms runner shipped “really well” and noted that his energy level was good.
Nyquist arrived Wednesday after getting in his final breeze at Del Mar on July 24, logging one mile in 1:39.40. Trainer Doug O’Neill described the colt’s latest work as “exceptional.”
“I thought his last work was the best I’ve seen out of him in a long time,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill also noted that Nyquist will need to be at his best to beat those who have assembled for the 2016 edition of the Haskell.
“We’re coming into this race with a lot of optimism,” O’Neill said. “Obviously, Gun Runner is super impressive and Exaggerator is an awfully good horse, too. I think this is a very deep field.
“I hope Nyquist brings one of his better races because he’s going to need one of his better races to win.”
Exaggerator, who wasn’t even known to be a possible Haskell entrant until Wednesday, arrived on the grounds Thursday. Prior to that, trainer Keith Desormeaux had been quoted as saying that the colt may not even race in Saturday’s Jim Dandy Stakes (GII) at Saratoga, and even went so far as to say that if they weren’t going to run in the Jim Dandy, that they wouldn’t run in the Haskell. However, opinions have changed since that time, which has led to the surprise entry of this year’s Preakness winner.
Desormeaux believes that the son of Curlin, who drew the far outside post of six for the Haskell, will rebound off of his poor showing in the Belmont Stakes, where he finished 11th, and is looking forward to renewing the rivalry with Nyquist.
“Nyquist is a top horse and it’s always fun to outrun top competition,” Desormaux said. “The far outside post is perfect for my horse.
“He’s an off-the-pace style runner. The inside runners can shoot away from there, go to the front, and he can watch all of the goings-on from the outside and take back and make his run when he’s ready.”
While the big three obviously will draw most of the money, especially after their trainers’ comments, there will be plenty of competition to make sure that they earn the victory.
Exaggerator may need this race, after Keith Desormaux graded his final workout as a “C.” He will get a good pace to run into, but he may have to overcome a track bias, as, historically speaking, Monmouth has been very kind to frontrunners. There is rain in the forecast for Sunday, at the Jersey Shore, and that could greatly enhance his chances, as he is a perfect 3 for 3 on an off track.
Nyquist will face the challenge of overcoming the inside post. He has done so before, when winning the Florida Derby (GI), however American Freedom will be a lot tougher to shake than Sawyer’s Mickey. American Freedom is also trained by eight-time Haskell-winning trainer Bob Baffert.
Baffert has won five of the last six Haskell Invitationals and sends American Freedom to post as sharp as ever. After winning two graded stakes in a row, American Freedom fired a :47 half-mile in his final pre-Haskell work.
Gun Runner should sit the perfect stalking trip and, with a more sensible pace than the one he followed in the Kentucky Derby, he could be dangerous. However, as noted previously, Monmouth Park is known for favoring the speedier types, which puts him at a disadvantage when sitting behind American Freedom and Nyquist.
Rounding out the field are Sunny Ridge and Awesome Slew. Awesome Slew has home field advantage, but after finishing third in the Pegasus Stakes (GIII), Monmouth’s local Haskell prep, one has to wonder if he is simply a cut below the big boys.
Sunny Ridge has run some admirable races in his career. He had a couple of gritty second-place finishes in last year’s Champagne Stakes (GI) and Delta Jackpot Stakes (GII) before returning to take the Withers Stakes (GIII) back in March. He was last seen finishing fourth in the Gotham Stakes. He also might be a cut below the best and will likely be rusty after such a lengthy layoff.
With a field like this, divisional honors could be settled in this race. A win by either of the top three would put them in the driver’s seat for their division’s Eclipse Award.
Can one of them pull it off, or will an outsider crash their party?