Trainer Dale Romans pats the head of his Haskell Stakes contender Howling Time as Jason Cook looks on during a morning bath on Wednesday morning at Monmouth Park
This year’s Grade 1, $1 million TVG.com Haskell Stakes drew a field of eight, led by Jack Christopher, who is undefeated and untested in four races including the Grade 1 Woody Stephens Stakes in June.
Cyberknife has been a horse to be reckoned with in the 3-year-old division, having won the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby in April and most recently victorious in the Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes on the same weekend as the Woody Stephens.
Taiba, who after winning the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby in April, was so highly regarded he was sent to post as the second betting choice in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby, returns to the races for his first start since he finished a badly beaten 12th in that race.
White Abarrio adds more depth to the field after rebounding off to 16th place Derby effort to finish second in the Grade 3 Ohio Derby at the end of June.
Howling Time gave Cyberknife all he could handle when coming up a nose shy of winning the Matt Winn and is yet another worthy of calling “win contender.” The other three – Benevengo, King of Hollywood and One Time Willard, have a combined record of zero-for-five in stakes races and appear to be overmatched.
Analysis and top contenders:
In the Matt Winn Stakes on June 12, Howling Time led from the start on sensible fractions, then was engaged by Cyberknife with a quarter mile to run. From that point to the wire they were involved in a pitched battle, with Cyberknife prevailing by a nose on the wire. Both colts earned 104 Equibase Speed Figures for that effort, which compares favorably with the 106 figure White Abarrio earned when second in the Ohio Derby.
Jack Christopher earned the highest figure, 108, when winning the Woody Stephens but for reasons mentioned later may be hard pressed to repeat that effort. Howling Time is on a four race pattern of improving figures, starting with 56 in his 3-year-old debut in March, to 77, then to 91 in May and finally the 104 figure earned in the Matt Winn. Third-place Matt Winn finisher Rattle N Roll flattered both Howling Time and Cyberknife when winning the American Derby on July 2 and improving six points, which suggests both Howling Time and Cyberknife could run fast enough to earn 110 figures here. Considering Howling Time opens at slightly higher odds (10-1) compared to Cyberknife (6-1), I’ll give slight preference to Howling Time as the better bet in this year’s Haskell Stakes.
Cyberknife came onto the 3-year-old scene in a big way in February when winning at the slightly shorter 1 1/16-mile distance but earning a graded stakes quality 100 figure. Showing that to be no fluke, he next won the Arkansas Derby with a slightly lower figure (95) but perhaps could have run faster as he coasted to a 2 3/4-length win. Following a non-competitive 18th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, Cyberknife resurfaced five weeks later and was exceptionally game when beating Howling Time by a nose and earning a career-best 104 figure in the process. With the ground-saving rail for the Haskell, regular jockey Florent Geroux will have the ability to put the talented colt on the lead from the start, or if Howling Time wants the early lead as he did in the Matt Winn, Geroux can stalk in second as he did that day, setting up another stirring battle to the wire.
White Abarrio actually ran a bit faster in his most recent race than the top pair, earning a 106 figure when second (beaten a length) in the Ohio Derby. Whereas the Matt Winn was run at 1 1/16 miles, the Ohio Derby was run at the nine-furlong distance from the Haskell, the same distance White Abarrio won at when victorious in the Florida Derby this spring. Like Cyberknife, White Abarrio has exceptional tactical speed, having won when fifth early in the Florida Derby and when second early in the Holy Bull Stakes prior to that. As such, White Abarrio is a strong contender in this race as well, and his starting odds of 5-1 appear to be high enough compared to his probability of him to win he too should be considered worthy of a win bet.
About the favorites, who I am taking a stand against in this race: Although both Jack Christopher and Taiba have run fast enough to win, having earned 108 and 102 figures, respectively, I don’t think either can beat any of the three main contenders if those horses run as expected.
Jack Christopher was two-for-two last year and has the same record this year, improving to a career-best 108 figure with his 10-length win in the Woody Stephens. However, all four of his wins from him have been around one turn and he is giving up experience to many others in this race. Additionally, he just isn’t bred to run as well at this distance as he has at shorter trips. A Race Lens query reveals his el sire, Munnings, has had 11 different horses make a total of 25 starts in stakes race at all levels at this nine-furlong distance, and none of those horses won. One of those is Bonny South, who runs earlier on Haskell Day in the Molly Pitcher Stakes. Although having earned $1 million and winning or placing in 11 of 16 races, she is zero-for-five (with four seconds and one third-place finish) at the distance. Jack Christopher’s dam (Rushin No Blushin) only ran one time in a two-turn race, finishing 12th.
Those are good reasons in my opinion to take a stand against Jack Christopher in this race.
As for Taiba, I did not like his chances in the Kentucky Derby in spite of his big win in the Santa Anita Derby, owing to his lack of experience. He had just run two times previous to the Derby, winning in a four-horse field in his debut and a six-horse field in the Santa Anita Derby. Although the 102 figures in those two efforts would have been competitive in the Kentucky Derby field if repeated, it was unlikely he could repeat those races against 19 other horses, particularly with many having more experience. Now he has an additional problem, having been off for more time than any other horse in the field. There is no guarantee Taiba can run back to his best effort off the layoff against much more seasoned competition, particularly as there are four other horses in the Haskell field that have run faster than he has to date.
The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures, is Benevengo (99), King of Hollywood (90) and One Time Willard (85).
TVG.com Haskell Stakes – Grade 1
Race 12 at Monmouth Park
Saturday, July 23 – Post Time 5:45 pm ET
One Mile and One Eighth
three years old
Purse: $1 Million
TV: CNBC 5-6 p.m. ET
Ellis Starr is National Racing Analyst for Equibase