Haskell: Coulda, shoulda, woulda, oughta

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

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Hot Rod Charlie, shown galloping in April at Churchill Downs, is the morning-line favorite for the $1 million Haskell Stakes on Saturday at Monmouth Park. (Ron Flatter photo)

Louisville, Ky.

The breezy way to trumpet Saturday’s $1 million Haskell Stakes is to remind would-be onlookers that the race features the second-place horses from all three Triple Crown races. But that sounds lame, like most cover-band tribute shows.

But take the collective stories of Hot Rod Charlie, Mandaloun and Midnight Bourbon, and the race looks more attractive. A lot more attractive.

When last we saw Hot Rod Charlie, he ran the fastest first quarter-mile in Belmont Stakes history and the fastest first half-mile since Secretariat. He still hung on to engage Essential Quality in an eyeball-to-eyeball duel in the stretch before capitulating at the end. It is hard to imagine a better, more important runner-up finish in recent memory.

That was six weeks ago with blinkers. Now trainer Doug O’Neill is taking them off in hopes of getting morning-line favorite Hot Rod Charlie (6-5) his first win since the March 20 winning of the Louisiana Derby. The time off and the cut back from 1½ miles to 1⅛ have co-owner Greg Helm feeling optimistic.

“Hot Rod Charlie seems to prosper in his races best when he’s got a little bit longer rest in between,” said Helm, who rounded up some golf buddies to partner with a group of Brown University fraternity brothers to buy the Oxbow colt. “A five- or six-week rest period seems good. We made the decision that the Haskell was the place we wanted to be. The distance is great, the competition is good, and the timing was excellent.”

While Hot Rod Charlie was being rested, Mandaloun (2-1) was prepping for the Haskell by winning at Monmouth Park last month in the 8½-furlong Pegasus Stakes. The neck victory came after a poor start that forced jockey Florent Géroux to go wide for the decisive rally.

“He had to run down a slow pace, so that was a positive,” trainer Brad Cox told reporters this week in a conference call. He probably got more out of the race doing it that way as opposed to just breaking and maybe setting off of a horse and just galloping around.”

A slow pace does not figure to be in the cards Saturday, but Cox said Mandaloun can adapt to almost any situation at the start.

“Ultimately we’re going to play the break,” he said. “He can be forwardly placed, but I’m not committed or think he has to be a certain place.”

Mandaloun will look more impressive when the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission finally gets around to demoting Derby winner Medina Spirit for his drug positive, although trainer Bob Baffert has a legal team that has the momentum of its own court victory this week. (See below.) The 2021 Haskell might yet have a classic winner in the field – at least in retrospect.

For now Mandaloun’s biggest win remains his Feb. 13 score in the Grade 2 Risen Star. At the time the main storyline was that he avenged his January loss in the Grade 3 Lecomte to Midnight Bourbon, who has not won since.

It looked like trainer Steve Asmussen was going to get his third Preakness victory with Midnight Bourbon, who had the lead turning into the stretch. The big, late close by Rombauer ruined that dream. Now Midnight Bourbon (9-2) comes back from his two-month break and, with Paco López his fourth different jockey in as many races, he tries to prove again he belongs in the company of elite 3-year-olds.

“He’s trained along pretty steadily,” Asmussen said. “He’s a big, strong horse. He’s put in some excellent work. We felt he gave a good account of himself at Pimlico, but we honestly feel that he’s continued to physically develop and will be a better horse the rest of the year.”

Of the other four Haskell starters, only the likely pacesetter Following Sea (3-1) may be in the same class as the place horses from the Triple Crown. It is just a question of having him prove it from the rail draw in his stakes debut and in the first route race of his short career.

“This horse is a really, really tremendous horse,” said Brad Thomas, the track handicapper and morning-line maker at Monmouth – and an accomplished horseplayer in his own right. “It’s really a question of how far he wants to run and whether or not he has enough seasoning.”

In his first race last month for trainer Todd Pletcher, he drew off to a 6½-length allowance win at Belmont Park that earned him a Beyer Speed Figure of 100. Spendthrift Farm’s homebred colt by Runhappy had been in the Baffert barn for his maiden-breaking, 5¾-length triumph three months ago at Oaklawn.

“He did benefit from a strong bias when he won at Belmont, and he had only one pace rival,” Thomas said. “He’s a horse that has a fantastic frame and a long stride. He’s just truly quality. His owner-breeder and trainer running him in this type of race this soon are clearly indicating that they think he is something special. I think you have to respect that, because these folks know what they are doing.”

If Following Sea were to win, it would probably be in gate-to-wire fashion. Although recent history belies that perception, that is the signature way to win the Haskell. My pick, though, is against the sprint-to-route breakthrough. I expect Hot Rod Charlie will break through for his first Grade 1 victory.

Notice I did not say I will bet on it. That is because jockeys have been disarmed by the New Jersey rule that bans them from using their crops unless it is for safety reasons. That is too wild a card to bank on.

The best advice here is to enjoy the race for aesthetic reasons – and to take notes. Even if riders are unable to use their sticks, the Haskell  horses will write the first important chapters of the summer. They will be informative when it comes to figuring out what happens next month. That is when Hot Rod Charlie may take on older horses in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar and the others eye their peers in the Travers at Saratoga.

Even though Medina Spirit, Rombauer and Essential Quality are not on the Jersey Shore, the horses chasing them during the spring may yet show that the 3-year-old class of 2021 is better than we think – and better than being labeled a bunch of runners-up.

Racing notes and opinions

Bob Baffert 1, New York Racing Association 0. That was the score after Baffert won a federal injunction Wednesday that threw out his indefinite suspension from NYRA tracks. As it is with lawyers and their clients, there was plenty of spin. Baffert’s side said this was the first step to unravel the piling-on that started with the rationalized admission that Medina Spirit tested positive for a trace amount of betamethasone. The NYRA spin was that the court endorsed the association’s right to protect the best interests of racing. Judge Carol Bagley Amon said, “I according conclude that, although NYRA invokes important interests here, those interests do not outweigh Baffert’s weightier interest in being able to practice his chosen profession.” So Baffert will be able to enter horses at Saratoga, even if he chooses to keep himself away.

Here is hoping the Saratoga summer that began Thursday will be easy to find on TV. That was not the case last August when the Grade 1 Sword Dancer was bumped off the Fox Sports family of channels because of the domino effect of a baseball rain delay. When NYRA took its talents to Fox – and away from TVG – it did so in hopes of having a platform to showcase its races rather than have them served as part of a smorgasbord of rival tracks. Instead, the NYRA telecasts have been riddled with mid-show instructions to switch between FS1 and FS2 – or to the NYRA app. This arrangement is not going away. Not only did NYRA sign a nine-year contract, but it also made Fox Sports a 25 percent owner of the NYRABets advanced-deposit wagering platform.

In addition to this weekly article, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com with more frequent postings during big events. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode touches all the bases at Del Mar, Saratoga and Monmouth Park. Longtime southern California handicapper Bob Ike previews the summer at Del Mar. Trainer Fausto Gutiérrez talks about his rising star Letruska and their plans for Saratoga. Monmouth handicapper Brad Thomas looks at Saturday’s $1 million Haskell Stakes. VSiN’s Vinny Magliulo has his picks for weekend races. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available via free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher and may also be downloaded at VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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