07/24/2014 11:56AM

Crist: Jim Dandy has substance over Haskell's flash


What’s the best way to get to the Travers – the $600,000 Jim Dandy over the Saratoga track or the richer and usually glitzier $1 million Haskell at Monmouth?

In recent years, the Haskell has usually been the more compelling race, but the Jim Dandy has been a more successful launching pad for Travers winners.

Things could well play out the same way this year. Both races will be renewed this weekend, and each drew good fields. On Saturday at Saratoga, Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist and Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong head a field of seven in the Jim Dandy. Given their connections, it was 1-10 they would end up at Saratoga instead of Monmouth this weekend. Trainers Christophe Clement (Tonalist) and Jimmy Jerkens (Wicked Strong) are based in New York and run here whenever possible. Also, it would be surprising if both horses fire their very best shots Saturday as opposed to firing merely good ones while getting a Travers prep over the Saratoga track.

(Tonalist and Wicked Strong have met twice before; most recently when running 1st and 4th in the Belmont, but also when they ran second and fourth in a Feb. 22 allowance race at Gulfstream that might be considered the Key Race of the Year: the victorious Constitution won the Grade 1 Florida Derby in his next start, second-place Tonalist won the Grade 2 Peter Pan and Grade 1 Belmont in his next two, and fourth-place Wicked Strong emerged from a fourth-place finish to win the Wood.)

On Sunday at Monmouth, two of the most talented 3-year-olds in the country – with perhaps more explosive ability than the Jim Dandy runners -- will square off in the Haskell, and both will be trying something new: Untapable will be facing males for the first time, and Bayern will be trying to win beyond a mile.

Both have been brilliant. Untapable has won all four of her starts this year, including big-figure romps in the Fair Grounds Oaks (earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 106) and Kentucky Oaks (107) and a 9 1/4-length blowout in the Mother Goose last time out. She has no competition in the 3-year-old filly ranks and thus is taking on the males and trying to join Serena’s Song (1995) and Rachel Alexandra (2009) as the only fillies to win the Haskell.

Bayern is less accomplished but turned in a truly sensational performance last time out on the Belmont Stakes undercard. Making his fifth career start in the Grade 2 Woody Stephens, he dueled for the lead through sizzling fractions of 21.96 and 44.20, and then sprinted away to win by 7 1/2 lengths with seven furlongs in 1:20.75. That was good for a Beyer of 107.

They are the leaders of the 3-year-old filly and 3-year-old sprinter divisions, but unlike Tonalist and Wicked Strong, neither is necessarily on a path to the Travers. This would jibe with the pattern of recent years, when the Haskell has featured some scintillating performances but the Jim Dandy has proved the more productive route to the Travers.

In the last dozen years, no Haskell winner has won the Travers, but six Jim Dandy winners have made it the first half of a double with the Travers: Medaglia d’Oro (2002), Flower Alley (2005), Bernardini (2006), Street Sense (2007), Stay Thirsty (2011), and Alpha (2012). Last year’s Travers winner, Will Take Charge, was second in the Jim Dandy. The roll of Haskell winners during that time includes champions such as War Emblem, Big Brown, Rachel Alexandra, and Lookin At Lucky, but you have to go back to Point Given in 2001 to find a Haskell-Travers winner. (The only other two in the last 25 years were Coronado’s Quest in 1998 and Holy Bull in 1994.)

If I could watch only one race this weekend, it would be the Haskell. The ambitious bids by Untapable and Bayern are inherently fascinating, and the prospect of their hooking up down the stretch is exhilarating. Tonalist and Wicked Strong don’t make the blood run as quickly – they should outrun their mild competition while getting useful experience over the track – but the Jim Dandy may well prove, yet again, the better way to get to the Travers winner’s circle.