LAS VEGAS — As if the race for best 3-year-old in the country could not get any more muddled, along comes the annual rivalry between Saratoga and Monmouth Park to make things even murkier.
Don’t take that as a complaint, because murk is good. With three different winners of the Triple Crown races and a star-crossed juvenile champion that may yet find his way back to the top of his game, there is no consensus best in the division. The murk should also mean more betting value for the big nine-furlong races competing for attention this weekend in upstate New York and on the Jersey Shore.
OK, maybe not at Saratoga. Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming (1-1) and Preakness winner Cloud Computing (6-5) are in what might as well be a match race Saturday at 6:18 p.m. EDT in the $600,000 Grade 2 Jim Dandy.
But Monmouth’s 50th renewal of the $1 million Grade 1 Haskell Invitational on Sunday at 5:47 p.m. EDT figures to be more of a crap shoot with seven highly regarded colts, including Belmont Stakes runner-up Irish War Cry (5-2), the morning-line favorite.
“I think my horse really showed what he’s made of in the Belmont, perhaps going a (1½-mile) distance that wasn’t best for him,” Irish War Cry trainer Graham Motion told reporters in a conference call this week. “I think all these horses have shown that they’re of this caliber, and we’ll have to find out in the fall how good they really are.”
Like most of the rest of the Haskell field, Irish War Cry came up short in the Kentucky Derby. But wouldn’t you know it? There is an interloper that could cause even more chaos in the 3-year-old division. Timeline (3-1) is a late-blooming colt that did not start racing until early March. He may not have been in the Derby, but he is 4-for-4, including an easy win last month in the Grade 3 Pegasus Stakes on the same Monmouth track as Sunday’s Haskell.
“He overcame a sprung shoe and early bumping to do it,” said Timeline trainer Chad Brown, who also saddles Grade 3 Dwyer winner Practical Joke (4-1) for this race. “I’ve had my eye on the Haskell for him for a long time. He’s had a race over the track now, and I think the mile-and-an-eighth will be his best trip.”
That is 110 yards longer than the Pegasus but the same distance as the Grade 3 Peter Pan, which Timeline won in May by 3½ lengths on a sloppy Belmont Park track. He also led the race from gate to wire, a style that is suited to the notoriously speed-favoring dirt at Monmouth. Four of the last five Haskell winners were never more than a length off the lead at any call, although the exception was last year when Exaggerator won on a waterlogged track.
“I’ve got to run to my strength,” said Ian Wilkes, who trains closer McCraken (9-2), winner of the Grade 3 Matt Winn last month at Churchill Downs. “I cannot worry about how the track is playing or what it’s doing, because once you take your horse out of his strength I think then you compromise yourself.”
When he was asked why he chose the Haskell over the Jim Dandy for McCraken, Wilkes said, “Simple. Grade 1. I haven’t won a Grade 1 yet (with McCraken). As a stallion prospect down the road, I think it’s very important.”
“A Grade 1 win is the ultimate goal,” said Joe Sharp, who trains Ohio Derby runner-up Girvin (6-1). “ We went to the Haskell mainly because Saratoga’s surface is a surface that some horses either they like it or they don’t. Basically we wanted this. We know he’s ready to fire up a big race. If all goes well we hope to come back in the Travers.”
The Jim Dandy is the traditional tune-up for next month’s $1.25 million Travers, which may yet be the gathering place for all these 3-year-olds. Even though there are only five horses in the field, it seems that Saturday’s Jim Dandy winner will be the early Travers favorite – as long as his name is Always Dreaming or Cloud Computing.
“It’s always a delicate balance when you’re trying to freshen a horse up and have him ready for a race like the Jim Dandy,” Always Dreaming trainer Todd Pletcher said. “You know you have to be fit and prepared for it, but you also want to hopefully have something to build on – and something left in the tank for the Travers.”
Pletcher is keenly aware of how much a race can take out of Always Dreaming. Two weeks after he won the Kentucky Derby, he got sucked into a speed duel with Classic Empire and did a fast fade to finish eighth in the Preakness. All the while Javier Castellano had Cloud Computing waiting to pounce, eventually outdueling Classic Empire to win by a head. All three horses have been idle from racing since.
That serves as a reminder that Classic Empire, last year’s 2-year-old champion, is still lurking. A foot abscess that kept him out of the Belmont also kept him from racing Sunday in the Haskell. But trainer Mark Casse and his son – assistant Norman Casse – got him back to galloping last weekend.
“Hopefully we can just get him into a regular work routine leading up to the Travers,” said Norman Casse, who has had his hands full with a horse that has at times thrown a rider, been reluctant to train and absorbed hoof and back trouble. “His problems are well documented. We just kind of embrace it now. He’s kind of like an athlete that doesn’t really like training too much.”
Classic Empire figures to be breezed for the first time in nearly two months. That will be this weekend, when the 3-year-old trail takes two more turns – and Classic Empire will be a bystander. A temporary bystander.
But wait ... that’s not all this weekend.
If 3-year-old colts and geldings are not your cup of tea, cheer up, bunkie. There are three other big races worth a bettor’s look this weekend.
With Songbird’s less-than-convincing win in the Delaware Handicap opening the door for drive-by critics, Stellar Wind (6-5) and Vale Dori (7-5) will try to make their case in the filly-and-mare division. They have a rematch Sunday at 8:40 p.m. EDT in the $300,000 Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar. The five-year-old mares dueled to the finish last month with Stellar Wind finishing first by a neck in the Beholder Mile at Santa Anita. Racing for John Sadler, Stellar Wind is 2-for-2 at Del Mar; Bob Baffert has trained Vale Dori to a pair of victories and a second-place finish in her three races on the same track.
Last seen winning the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, Drefong (5-2) comes back from an eight-month break. He is seeking his sixth straight victory when he races Saturday at 9:10 p.m. EDT in the $300,000 Grade 1 Bing Crosby Stakes at Del Mar. Trainer Bob Baffert said the long break came after he planned to ship the 4-year-old colt to race in Dubai before changing his mind, adding there was nothing physically wrong with him. Roy H (3-1), winner of last month’s Grade 3 True North in New York, and Ransom The Moon, a Grade 2 winner at Santa Anita, are also in the six-furlong race for 3-year-olds and up.
After winning the English Oaks last month and the Irish Oaks two weeks ago, Enable (11/8) is favored to win her first race in open company, facing mostly older males Saturday at 10:35 a.m. EDT in the Group 1 King George at Ascot. Her trainer John Gosden has saddled the only two 3-year-old winners of this 1½-mile turf race since 2004. Gosden also has Dubai Sheema Classic winner Jack Hobbs (5-1) coming back from a last-place finish on the same track in last month’s Prince of Wales’s. That 1¼-mile race was won by Highland Reel (11-2), which comes in for Coolmore off back-to-back Group 1 wins. Rain is forecast for Ascot for both Friday and Saturday, although less so at race time. A good-to-soft track may suit Jack Hobbs the most of the top three contenders.