Haskell 2016 is shadowed by more than clouds
by Ron Flatter
Summertime racing has to find its way back to normal after the Year of the Pharoah.
The Triple Crown that so many said was just the tonic racing needed now casts a big shadow over races like today’s Grade 1 $1 million Haskell Invitational. Now American Pharoah seems like the pretty girl who left the party early.
Walking into Monmouth Park with a dull sky that would start producing rain two races into the card, it seemed every casual conversation began with words like “it’s different this year, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it feels a little different,” said jockey Paco López, who has been a regular here on the Jersey shore since 2009. “When a horse like (American Pharoah) is here, when they’re going to run, it’s a thrill. But we’ll be OK.”
Where American Pharoah attracted thousands to a Friday gallop a year ago today, morning workouts this week were pretty much left to the regulars – the horsemen and the railbirds whose number don’t swell nearly as much when mere classic winners like Nyquist and Exaggerator hit the track.
In that sense maybe Pharoah created a monster of an act that is too tough to follow anywhere let alone where he left hoof prints. Today’s Haskell encore may have a field that is only six deep, but reads about as well as any in the recent history of this race.
“This is a top-five all-time Haskell field,” said Bob Kulina, president of Darby Development and Monmouth’s longtime boss. “I think it’s number three behind last year and Bet Twice-Alysheba-Lost Code (in 1987). From pure competition, you’ve got 1-2-3 in the Derby, you’ve got the Preakness winner and you’ve got Bob Baffert’s ‘X’ factor with American Freedom.”
Even so, try telling that to the average fan who remembers what Pharoah brought here last summer.
“You kind of had to throw that out,” Kulina said. “You go back and you look at ’14. You look at ’13. You just can’t compare this to last year. You always want to beat last year. You always want to go forward. But that is unrealistic. To get this race, this is phenomenal.”
Memories being ephemeral flashes that turn fuzzy with time, it is difficult to recall what the vibe was here when, say, Bayern and Verrazano won. It is far easier to remember moments like the roar of the crowd when Pharoah made his move into the far turn on his way to victory last Aug. 2. Or the cheers when Baffert and the Zayats came to collect the Haskell trophy. Or the loud boos when Gov. Chris Christie presented it.
It is safe to say Christie will not be here today, nor will luminaries like Bill Murray. And even though he has won the Haskell eight times and is trying for his ninth, Baffert is taking a pass, just as he has three of the past four years since he suffered a heart attack in Dubai.
“Having American Pharoah last year was unbelievable,” said longtime Monmouth trainer Jason Servis after he got a winner in today’s first race. “I don’t think it’s fair to compare this to last year. Not having the sunshine is not a bad thing here because people don’t go to the beach. They come to the track. But the rain kind of slowed things up.”
As Servis said that, he looked around the paddock to the gathering that was starting to build into a crowd. “It’s jumping,” he said. “It’s jumping.”
Photos courtesy of Ron Flatter