Precursor of Haskell an unforgettable Choice

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

July 28th, 2015

The Monmouth Park condition book states that Sunday's $1 million Haskell Invitational (G1), featuring a horse you might have heard of called American Pharoah, will be the 48th edition of the race. The track's media guide confirms their own fact with a tabulated race history that goes back to 1968.

The race's previous name, the Monmouth Invitational, was indeed first used in 1968. However, the race's lineage actually predates that year and, intentionally or not, has been unnecessarily scrubbed from the modern history books.

The official chart of the 1968 Monmouth Invitational indicated it was the first running of the event, but for several years afterward the American Racing Manual noted in its race history footnotes that the Monmouth Invitational was "Run as Choice Stakes prior to 1968." That seems fairly accurate as the Choice disappeared after 1967 and the name was not used again until an unrelated grass race for three-year-olds started bearing that name in 1975.

The whitewashing of the pre-Monmouth Invitational version of the Choice Stakes is unfortunate considering how strong of a race it was for two decades. Although never endowed with a huge purse and without any elite pretensions with the "Invitational" moniker, it nonetheless did what the Haskell does today -- attract many of the nation's elite three-year-olds to Monmouth Park.

Revived along with Monmouth in 1946, the 20th century edition of the Choice was first contested at 1 1/4 miles. Its best winners in that early era were Greek Ship (1950), who also happened to beat older horses in the Met Mile and Monmouth Handicap that season, and Battlefield (1951), the previous year's champion juvenile who used the Choice as a stepping stone to victory in the Travers. Young Peter (1947) had also pulled off the Choice/Travers double.

By the time Vertex (1957) prevailed in the Choice the race had been shortened to 1 1/8 miles. Vertex proved to be an outstanding older horse over two seasons, winning the 1958 Pimlico Special (the last before it's revival 30 years later) and the 1959 Gulfstream Park and John B. Campbell handicaps, among other races. Vertex later sired champion juvenile Top Knight, Choice winner Convex (1965) and Monmouth Invitational winner Freetex (1972).

The 1960s were arguably the golden years of the Choice. The decade kicked off with a then-unknown gelding named Kelso prevailing in a Choice further shortened to 1 1/16 miles. It was the first ever stakes win for the future legend, who by the end of the year had notched the first of five consecutive Horse of the Year titles.

Two years later, perhaps the deepest field ever assembled for the Choice resulted in a victory by Belmont Stakes winner Jaipur, who defeated Dwyer hero Cyane and juvenile champion Crimson Satan. Jaipur went on to win an epic Travers duel with Ridan and claim the three-year-old championship.

The final edition of the Choice as racing fans then knew it occurred in 1967. It was won by a colt that would become well-known to breeders and pedigree enthusiasts for decades to come -- In Reality.

It is perhaps appropriate that the Choice name was later slapped on a minor grass stakes Monmouth created in the mid-1970s. Many of those earlier Choice winners had proved their versatility winning grass stakes, big and small: Greek Ship won the Atlantic City Turf Handicap; Kelso the Washington, D.C. International; Knightly Manner (1964) the Dixie Handicap, and Tequillo (1966) the Bougainvillea Handicap.

This dirt-to-turf crossover continued into the early years of the Monmouth Invitational. For example, Majestic Light (1976) went on to score victories in the Man o' War and Bernard Baruch Handicap as a four-year-old.

The most interesting career twist might be that of Balustrade, the "inaugural" Monmouth Invitational winner of 1968. Three years after winning the most lucrative race of his life, Balustrade was wowing Monmouth Park fans again by capturing the track's richest and most noted jumping event, the Midsummer Hurdle.