Other shoes dropped everywhere, demons played ice hockey in hell, and teardrop flames converged from both ends of the candle in 1968. It was one of the most turbulent and tumultuous years in the history of modern America. Protests, marches, riots, assassinations; sit-ins and walk-outs; the TET Offensive in Vietnam, the Chicago convention, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the black-gloved fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos — out of this cauldron of turmoil and disaffection came one of the country’s great races, the Haskell Stakes (G1). The 54th running of the showcase event at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., is Saturday.
The Haskell has become, after the Triple Crown, the most significant race in the country for 3-year-olds. Yes, I know, to anyone in New York, as well as the besotted swain who proudly named his son Travers because he met his future wife at Saratoga, that smacks of apostasy. That isn’t to say the Haskell can match the Travers (G1) for history, charm and romantic associations or that Monmouth — or any racetrack, for that matter — can dispute Saratoga’s claim to the best racing in North America. But over the last 30 years, the Haskell has impacted the sport more significantly than any other race exclusively for 3-year-olds after the Triple Crown.
Championship honors provide a simple, but telling, measure of this significance. Over the last 30 years, at the end of the season, five Haskell winners have been named Horse of the Year — Authentic (2020), American Pharoah (2015), Rachel Alexandra (2009), Point Given (2001) and Holy Bull (1994). Another six Haskell winners have been champion 3-year-olds — Maximum Security (2019), Lookin At Lucky (2010), Big Brown (2008), War Emblem (2002) Skip Away (1996) and the great filly Serena’s Song (1995). In addition, in 2007, Curlin went on to be Horse of the Year and, of course, champion 3-year-old after finishing third, behind Any Given Saturday and Hard Spun.
As for the Travers, at the end of the season, only two of its winners in the last 30 years were named Horse of the Year — Point Given and Holy Bull. American Pharoah, you might recall, shocked sensibilities and expectations while resurrecting the gruesome image of Saratoga as a “graveyard of champions” when he ran second to Keen Ice in 2015; he, of course, went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) and claim Horse of the Year honors. Another six Travers winners have been champion 3-year-olds — West Coast (2017), Arrogate (2016), Will Take Charge (2013), Summer Bird (2009), Bernardini (2006) and Thunder Gulch (1995).
In other words, at season’s end, 16.7 percent of the Haskell winners have been named Horse of the Year and 36.7 percent a champion 3-year-old, compared to 6.7 percent and 26.7 percent of the Travers winners.
Two months after Robert Kennedy was assassinated at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and just three weeks before protestors and police violently clashed at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, a 33-1 long shot named Balustrade won the inaugural Monmouth Invitational Handicap by a length over Chompion, who two weeks later would win the Travers. Perhaps that first running of what would become the Haskell was indeed a product of its turbulent time since it challenged the status and reigning authority of the Travers. In any case, the two races are forever linked.
In 1981, the Monmouth Invitational became known as the Haskell Invitational and was simplified last year to the TVG.com Haskell Stakes; but from the beginning it has been a stalwart on the national racing calendar. Ever since the North American Graded Stakes Committee began handing out Roman numerals, the Haskell has been a Grade 1 event, with its purse featuring enough zeroes to mesmerize a deacon. And that status has been based not on tradition or reputation, but on the quality of the competition. Alysheba, Bet Twice, Forty Niner, Touch Gold, Coastal, Wajima, Our Native, Deputed Testamony, Bayern — they all raced in the Haskell.
Saturday’s renewal will probably inspire some critics since it has attracted a relatively small field of seven that includes three colts whose presence here might provide further evidence that horse owners can be a dreamy lot. But this season’s class of 3-year-olds isn’t deep, and of the top six sophomores in training, three are here: Mandaloun, the Kentucky Derby (G1), runner-up; Hot Rod Charlie, the Belmont (G1) runner-up; and Midnight Bourbon, the Preakness (G1) runner-up. Yes, it’s a race of runners-up, but both Mandaloun and Hot Rod Charlie finished ahead of Belmont winner Essential Quality in the Derby, and Midnight Bourbon finished ahead of Derby winner Medina Spirit in the Preakness (G1). So the class isn’t very deep, and its leaders seem to be so close in talent that they take turns beating each other.
Hot Rod Charlie took a big step forward in the Belmont, where he put away the speedster Rock Your World and fought gamely through the stretch to finish about length back; so he’ll probably be the Haskell favorite. But that was at 1 1/2 miles, and it was the best performance of Hot Rod Charlie’s career. Can he duplicate it Saturday at 1 1/8 miles at Monmouth?
Sophomores typically improve through the season, sometimes steadily, sometimes suddenly, and sometimes twice. Mandaloun and Midnight Bourbon have been performing at roughly the same level since February; they look poised to step forward.
And then there’s Following Sea, who’s lightly raced and hugely talented. He has raced only three times and never beyond 6 1/2 furlongs. At Belmont Park, making his first start for trainer Todd Pletcher, Following Sea stalked a rapid pace (:44.79) and then, without much encouragement, drew clear to win his most recent outing by more than six lengths. He drew the rail for the Haskell and almost certainly will be the early leader Saturday. His chances for winning, though, could depend, at least in part, on the Monmouth surface.
Monmouth has a reputation for being kind to speedsters. But the reputation oversimplifies the reality. Yes, speedsters can dominate. From July 2 through July 11, for example, front-runners (defined as leading after the opening half-mile) won six of the 15 two-turn races at Monmouth. But from June 5 through June 18, front-runners won just once in 13 two-turn races.
The races on June 26 provide a snapshot of how quickly and dramatically circumstances can change at Monmouth. Brice, the 4-5 favorite, led virtually from the start over a “fast” surface to win the first two-turn race on the card. But a relentless rain changed everything, and in the ninth race, the second two-turn race of the day, with the surface officially “sloppy” but sealed, a 22-1 long-shot named Concrete Charlie rallied up the rail from 15 1/2 lengths back to put himself in the winner’s circle. Antigravity, who’ll make his next start in the Haskell, rallied from six lengths back to win the very next race.
Overall, the typical winner of a two-turn race at Monmouth comes from about two lengths back after the opening half-mile. On the other hand, front-runners have won 29 percent of the 41 two-turn races since the first of June. Observation is among a handicapper’s most value tools. Watch closely: If early speed seems to be having success Saturday at Monmouth, Following Sea could win a very significant race.
Gary West is a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures.