Protonico's back in action on Haskell undercard

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July 30th, 2015

In the lead-up to American Pharoah in the Haskell Invitational (G1), Monmouth Park will offer five stakes on Sunday's undercard.

The $200,000 Monmouth Cup (G2) marks the return of Protonico. After emerging as a major player in the older male division this spring, he unfortunately came down with the illness that was moving through trainer Todd Pletcher's barn a couple of months ago. The question is whether the well-bred son of Giant's Causeway is in the same form that propelled him to a five-length romp in the April 11 Ben Ali (G3) at Keeneland and a determined head decision in the Alysheba (G2). Protonico was flattered when Alysheba near-misser Noble Bird came back to take the Stephen Foster (G1). But he returns from an illness-induced break, as the 123-pound highweight, versus a solid field.

The top three from last year's Monmouth Cup will renew rivalry in the 1 1/16-mile test -- defending champion Valid, runner-up Bradester, and third Pants on Fire -- but they're unlikely to replicate their exact finish. Bradester looked sharper than ever when wiring the July 5 Salvator Mile (G3), earning a field-best 108 BRIS Speed rating and leaving Valid back in third. The Eddie Kenneally pupil will flash his early speed from the rail here. While Valid also has early foot, he's drawn the far outside post 10. Not to be overlooked is locally based millionaire Pants on Fire, the 2013 Monmouth Cup winner, who drops in class off a seventh in the Met Mile (G1).

Irish You Well brings a three-for-four local mark, his only Monmouth loss being a fourth in last year's Haskell. The Wayne Catalano charge warmed up with an optional claiming score over this track and trip in the slop. Freestyler takes a stiff class test, but the well-bred son of Street Cry has won four straight and is unbeaten in three Monmouth appearances.

The other two graded events are a pair of $150,000 turf prizes, the Oceanport (G3) and the Matchmaker (G3) for distaffers.

Oceanport contender Kharafa ventured outside his usual New York-bred stakes company to plunder the July 4 Elkwood going a mile over this course, despite a troubled trip. The extra sixteenth of a mile on offer here should stand him in good stead. Lochte was beaten a neck after a wide trip, and spotting seven pounds, on that occasion. Although Lochte is logical as a past Grade 1 winner who annexed the Tampa Bay (G3) back in January, he's still winless from four local tries and has to give Kharafa five pounds this time.

Heart to Heart is worth a look as perhaps the controlling speed in the hands of Triple Crown-winning jockey Victor Espinoza. The son of English Channel won three straight in front-running fashion last year, highlighted by the Jefferson Cup (G3) and Commonwealth Turf (G3) at Churchill Downs. Just denied in the Red Bank (G3) here two starts back, Heart to Heart is entitled to bounce back from an uncharacteristic seventh in the Poker (G3).

Cage Fighter, fourth in the 1 1/8-mile Monmouth S. (G2) to Arlington Million (G1)-bound Triple Threat, was in contention until weakening inside the final furlong. The slight cutback in trip should further his cause, especially since he was best of the rest behind Ironicus in the 1 1/16-mile Dixie (G2). Old Time Hockey has performed well in his last two turf appearances, missing by a head to Lochte at Tampa and getting up in time to repeat in Tampa's Turf Classic. This looks like his bare minimum trip, though.

The Matchmaker, whose prize structure includes seasons to WinStar stallions Paynter, Fed Biz, and Take Charge Indy, pits the tactical speed of I'm Already Sexy versus the strong late kick of Testa Rossi. The pace scenario seems to favor I'm Already Sexy, but the 1 1/8-mile distance doesn't. That could be enough to swing the pendulum toward Testa Rossi, who has solid form this term whenever she gets a halfway genuine tempo. Awarded the win upon the disqualification of Hard Not to Like in the January 21 Endeavour (G3), the Chad Brown filly was a closing second to Coffee Clique in the Dr. James Penney Memorial (G3) last time.

There's more to the Matchmaker than a straight match between the 123-pound highweights. Brown is double-handed with Casual Smile, a Farish blueblood by Sea the Stars and out of 2003 Epsom Oaks (G1) winner Casual Look. Beaten a neck by future star Taghrooda as a juvenile, she has won two straight at Monmouth. Also two-for-two over the course is Means Well, who's likely better than her fifth in the Penney implies. A Richard Santulli homebred trained by Alan Goldberg, she's a rebound candidate. The inconsistent Cushion from the Christophe Clement barn, Mark Hennig's highly tried Baffle Me and Graham Motion's Charm City Girl are others in the mix.

Kicking off the Haskell Day stakes action is the $100,000 Lady's Secret, featuring Molly Pitcher (G3) romper Got Lucky. Note that the pace is likely to be much hotter than it was last time, when pedestrian fractions played right into the favorite's hands. Two starts back in the Monmouth Beach over this same trip of one mile and 70 yards, a swift early tempo benefited deep-closing Stiffed. Also able to make their presence felt are Montana Native and Blue Violet.

The $100,000 Teddy Drone has attracted Wildcat Red, who understandably tired to third behind Favorite Tale and champion Work All Week in the July 5 Smile Sprint (G2), his first start in nearly six months. The tough and scrappy fighter punched above his weight last year when routing on the Derby trail, but the sprint game surely fits him better. His opponents include the respective second and third from the Belmont Sprint Championship (G3), Stallwalkin' Dude and Green Gratto; Uptown Boy, second to Salutos Amigos in the Mr. Prospector here; and Pletcher's lightly raced Catron.