Updated on 09/17/2011 12:05PM

Haskell casting call

Max Forever wins the Grade 3 Long Branch at Monmouth, earning himself a puncher's chance in Sunday's Haskell.

OCEANPORT, N.J. - The "second season" for 3-year-olds starts Sunday afternoon with significant stakes at Monmouth Park and Saratoga.

Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide headlines the $1 million Haskell at Monmouth while Empire Maker, the Triple Crown spoiler in the Belmont Stakes, returns to action in the $500,000 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga.

The two races set the stage for the ultimate divisional showdown of the summer: the $1 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 23.

The field for the Grade 1 Haskell has slowly started to assemble at Monmouth.

Most of the major Haskell runners remain headquartered at Saratoga and will not journey from the foothills of the Adirondacks to the Jersey Shore until much closer to the tentative 5:42 p.m. post time Sunday afternoon.

Funny Cide, Blue Grass winner Peace Rules, the undefeated Wild and Wicked, and Sky Mesa, the colt looking to rebound from his lone career defeat in Dwyer Stakes at Belmont Park, are tentatively slated to arrive Saturday or Sunday.

Excessivepleasure, winner of the Iowa and WinStar derbies, was booked on a Wednesday afternoon flight from California.

Only Max Forever and Kool Humor, two of the longer shots in the Haskell field, were on the grounds Wednesday morning.

Kool Humor, the lone New Jersey-bred in the field, was flown into Newark Airport Tuesday and vanned down to Monmouth.

It was a smooth trip from Dallas for the gelding's homecoming.

Kool Humor enjoyed a day of rest Wednesday and will gallop up to the race. It's been a circuitous journey back to the place where it all began.

Kool Humor debuted last July at Monmouth, running second in a statebred maiden race. That was his lone start in his native state.

He has since competed in Louisiana, Kentucky, and Texas this season, most recently winning the $100,000 Alysheba Breeders' Cup Stakes at Lone Star Park.

Only one New Jersey-bred has won the Haskell, the state's most famous race: Thanks to Tony in 1980 when the race was known as the Monmouth Invitational. Thistyranthasclass, fifth in 2000, was the most recent Jersey-bred to run in the Haskell.

A strong showing by Kool Humor would be a boost for the state's beleaguered breeding program.

"It means a great deal," said Mike Campbell, executive director of the Thoroughbred Breeders Association of New Jersey. "The foal crop has been in decline for the last 10 years, but good quality horses are being produced in New Jersey. Our foal crops are in the 300's but we can compete with horses bred in New York and Pennsylvania on a consistent basis."

Like Funny Cide, Kool Humor is a gelded son of Distorted Humor. Kool Humor turned the corner with wins in his last two races, which coincides with Jack Bruner taking over as trainer from Ronny Werner.

"We've been real happy with him," Bruner said. "He's done everything we've asked him to do. He keeps trying."

Bruner served as Werner's assistant for 15 years before opening his own stable this year.

The decision to tackle the Haskell rested with owner Tom Durant, a Texas auto dealer, who finished second in the 2001 Haskell with Touch Tone.

"Right after he won the Alysheba, Tom wanted to come up here." Bruner said. "He just wanted to come back and try it again."

Kool Humor faces a stiff class test in the Haskell. He makes his graded stakes debut against many of the leaders in the division.

"Tom likes deep water," Bruner said. "He's always been up to try it. He doesn't back up."

While the owner is game, the horse remains unproven at the Haskell distance of 1 1/8 miles. He has not gone beyond one mile on dirt, and the Alysheba was a seven-furlong race contested in the mud.

"It's a concern," Bruner said. "It really is. He's been a mile and a-sixteenth in a stakes in Texas on the grass. We'll see if he's up for it."

Max Forever must also prove he is up to the challenge. He carries the banner for the home team as the only Monmouth-based horse in the track's most prestigious race.

Max Forever, owned by Oakhurst, N.J. residents Dorothy and Raymond Dweck and trained by Ben Perkins Jr., earned his way into the race with a victory in the Grade 3 Long Branch Stakes, Monmouth's traditional Haskell prep. That is his lone stakes win.

"The horse has had good races over the track," Perkins said. "Mr. Dweck wanted to be involved."

Like Kool Humor, Max Forever won't need a serious drill before the race.

"He's ready," Perkins said. "He's been racing steadily."

This will be Perkins's second Haskell runner. He finished second with Storm Tower in 1993.