Five storylines for the 2021 Haskell Stakes
With the runners-up from the Kentucky Derby (G1), Preakness S. (G1), and Belmont S. (G1) all set to compete, Saturday’s $1 million Haskell S. (G1) promises to be a fascinating renewal at Monmouth Park.
Here are five storylines to note for the Haskell.
Rematch from the Kentucky Derby
The respective second, third, and sixth from the Kentucky Derby — Mandaloun, Hot Rod Charlie, and Midnight Bourbon — will renew their rivalry for the first time since the first Saturday in May.
Mandaloun would be awarded the Derby win if first-past-the-post Medina Spirit is disqualified for testing positive for betamethasone. After he skipped the remaining two jewels of the Triple Crown, Mandaloun prepped for the Haskell with a win in the Pegasus S. at Monmouth.
Midnight Bourbon improved to finish second in the Preakness in his latest start, thanks to a better trip. Hot Rod Charlie went straight from the Derby to the Belmont and nearly pulled off a frontrunning coup.
Although Mandaloun came out on top of the trio at Churchill Downs, a different scenario in the Haskell could produce a different result.
Only three other contenders are listed as probable at this writing, according to Monmouth publicity — the up-and-coming Following Sea for Todd Pletcher; Pickin’ Time, who has been well beaten in three starts since last fall’s Nashua S. (G3); and Basso, third to Pickin’ Time in Monmouth's Sapling S. as a juvenile and most recently sixth in his allowance comeback. Both locally based sophomores, Pickin’ Time and Basso, appear to be up against it.
Flashy potential versus Triple Crown form
As the second half of the season kicks into gear, late-developing three-year-olds get to test their mettle against the established class from the Triple Crown trail. The Haskell offers this ever-intriguing dynamic in the form of Following Sea, who has won his last pair by a combined margin of more than 12 lengths. Unraced at two, the son of champion sprinter Runhappy has flashed serious talent.
But Following Sea has yet to race beyond 6 1/2 furlongs, never mind two turns, and has not tried stakes company. The simultaneous step up to 1 1/8 miles, while tackling proven Grade 1 combatants, is a big ask. The Spendthrift Farm homebred had other, less ambitious options, so it could be read as a vote of confidence in his ability. Still, this is a trial by fire in the colt's fourth start.
Plenty of speed on paper
Between Following Sea’s brilliant speed and the aggressive styles of both Midnight Bourbon and Hot Rod Charlie, the Haskell pace figures to be at least honest, if not demanding.
Midnight Bourbon has fared best when he can take up a forward position and get in comfortable galloping rhythm. That never happened in the Derby, after he was bumped early and shuffled too far back, but the Steve Asmussen trainee enjoyed his preferred setup in the Preakness. It wasn’t enough to win, though, as Rombauer came flying from off the pace. The question remains whether Midnight Bourbon can work out a winning trip amid other speed.
Hot Rod Charlie employed a take-no-prisoners attitude when he wired the Louisiana Derby (G2) (and hurled back Midnight Bourbon). In hindsight, he might have been better served taking it to Medina Spirit early in the Kentucky Derby, instead of camping a few lengths behind. Hot Rod Charlie used his early speed to great effect in the Belmont, where he set punishing fractions of :22.78 and :46.49, before he got a breather and kicked on again. Only champion Essential Quality was able to run him down, with his superior stamina telling at the end of the 1 1/2-mile jewel.
But will Hot Rod Charlie try those tactics again, now that trainer Doug O’Neill will reportedly take the blinkers off? He didn’t need to lead in the past. Hot Rod Charlie rallied boldly from off the pace to finish second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). His equipment change is one of the variables involved in the rematch of the Derby rivals.
Whip rule factor
Monmouth’s strict whip rule permits the use of the crop only for reasons of safety, not to urge a mount on, and that might have been a factor in Mandaloun’s close call in the Pegasus. The Brad Cox pupil made a terrific, sweeping move to strike the front in the local prep, then idled and nearly got caught. Regular rider Florent Geroux did well under the circumstances, but Mandaloun might not be able to afford a similar loss of focus in the Haskell.
On the other hand, the Pegasus served as a great trial run for Mandaloun and Geroux. That could redound to their benefit, as the other principals undergo an experiment in the Haskell. If the Juddmonte homebred can stay on task, the race shape might suit him well.
Breeders’ Cup and Eclipse Award implications
The Haskell would have Breeders’ Cup implications in any event, but its status as a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) ups the ante. Three of the last seven Haskell winners have gone on to add the Classic — Triple Crown champion American Pharoah (2015), bookended by Bayern (2014) and Authentic (2020). They were all trained by Bob Baffert.
Also in the forefront of calculations is the Eclipse Award for champion three-year-old male. Mandaloun arguably stands to gain most from a Haskell win. By confirming his Derby form with Hot Rod Charlie and Midnight Bourbon, he would emerge as the prime threat to stablemate Essential Quality for the divisional title.
Hot Rod Charlie would boost his claims with a win, as well, although his two classic losses would need further remediation. He is likely to try elders in the Aug. 21 Pacific Classic (G1), over the same Del Mar track and 1 1/4-mile trip as the Nov. 6 Breeders’ Cup Classic.