07/26/2017 3:00PM

Depth is the mark of this year's Haskell field

Mark Wyville/Equi-Photo
Timeline, who stayed unbeaten with this victory in the Pegasus, will vie for favoritism with Irish War Cry in the Haskell Stakes.

The Haskell Invitational, which will be run for the 50th time Sunday, has long been known for luring the stars of the 3-year-old division to Monmouth Park. But this year is different, and the race’s strength instead comes from its depth.

That the Haskell has lured such an interesting group is quite an accomplishment since division leader Always Dreaming and Preakness winner Cloud Computing are staying at Saratoga for the Jim Dandy. The race also will be without trainers Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher, two of the Haskell’s biggest supporters.

Baffert, the winningest trainer in Haskell history with eight victories since 2001, will not be participating for the first time since 2009. Pletcher, a three-time Haskell winner, has had a starter in nine of the last 11 runnings. Together, Baffert and Pletcher have won nine of the last 12 Haskells.

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On Sunday, undefeated Timeline and Wood Memorial winner Irish War Cry figure to vie for favoritism, somewhere in the 2-1 range. Battle of Midway, Practical Joke, McCraken, and Girvin figure to not be far behind in the wagering. The longest shot in the field is likely to be Hence, and he is coming off a freaky last-to-first victory in the Iowa Derby.

With three different horses having accounted for the Triple Crown this year, the 3-year-old championship can go many different ways. Bob Kulina, president of Monmouth Park, thinks the Haskell winner will take a big step up the list.

“Whoever comes out the winner may not become the division leader, but they will be in the conversation,” he said.

In a way, the competitiveness of this year’s lineup is refreshing. Although the Haskell has attracted some of the top 3-year-olds in the game, it has not always been an easy race to bet. In 16 editions dating back to 2001, the Haskell winner has paid 6-5 or less 10 times. Five of those horses – American Pharoah, Rachel Alexandra, Big Brown, War Emblem, and Point Given – were 1-2 or less.

Kulina predicts Sunday’s race will be well bet.

“No matter who wins, I don’t think anybody will be shocked,” Kulina said. “From a strictly gambling perspective, it’s a very good race.”

The Grade 1, $1 million Haskell will be televised nationally on NBC from 5-6 p.m. as part of the Countdown to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.

This 50th Haskell is special to Kulina, who has worked at Monmouth for 45 years. He started in the racing office in 1972, was named racing secretary in 1977, and general manager of Monmouth and the Meadowlands in 1991.

“For the first running, in 1968, I was rubbing horses for my father and going to be a sophomore in college,” he said. “I was there for the race.”

Kulina said a number of factors have helped the Haskell grow over the years.

“First, beginning in the mid-1980s the 3-year-old division and the Triple Crown began to become more and more important,” he said. “That coincided with the decline of handicaps, of putting weight on older horses.”

The race gained further attention in a three-year run beginning in 1994. Local horseman Jimmy Croll won the race that season with Holy Bull, who would be named Horse of the Year.

The next year, D. Wayne Lukas sent out the filly Serena’s Song to beat the boys. She would be named champion 3-year-old filly. In 1996, Mid-Atlantic horseman Sonny Hine won with Skip Away, the eventual 3-year-old champion, who two years later would become Horse of the Year.

In 1997 Buick was brought on as a race sponsor and the Haskell purse was increased to $1 million.

“The race became a big part of New Jersey racing,” Kulina said. “We started the incentives to bring in the best horses, which has now become an industry norm. We also were one of the first tracks to load up our big day with multiple stakes. In 1987, I think we had 11 stakes.”

Kulina said the Haskell would not be what it is today without support from one particular group.

“We had the resources and we had the horsemen’s support,” he said. “This race would not have grown if the horsemen had not stood with us and given us the ability to build it up.”