07/27/2016 1:20PM

Haskell lineup rich in quality but modest in number

Barbara D. Livingston
Nyquist, winner of the Kentucky Derby, is among seven probables for Sunday's $1 million Haskell.

What a difference a year makes.

In 2015, American Pharoah came into the Grade 1 Haskell at Monmouth Park with seven straight wins, including all three legs of the Triple Crown. He already had locked up the title for champion 3-year-old male, and his popularity was so high that Monmouth created a weekend-long festival in his honor.

The 3-year-old filly division, on the other hand, was wide open.

This year, the tables are turned. Songbird is the undisputed leading filly, and Nyquist is holding onto a tenuous lead in the male division.

Nyquist this year has won the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby; Exaggerator took the Santa Anita Derby and Preakness; and Creator won the Arkansas Derby and Belmont Stakes. But Nyquist is still king of the hill, according to the final NTRA poll of 3-year-olds that was conducted in June following the Belmont Stakes, and therefore topped the Haskell wish list.

“When American Pharoah crossed the finish in last year’s race, my first thought was, ‘This is going to be hard to top next year,’ ” said Bob Kulina, the president of Darby Development, which operates Monmouth. “But if you would have told me last January I could have the Derby winner, I would have said, ‘Sign me up.’ ”

Monmouth has an excellent record in getting the nation’s top 3-year-olds to the Haskell. In addition to American Pharoah, over the last 10 years the track has lured Untapable and Bayern (2014), Verrazano (2013), Paynter (2012), Rachel Alexandra (2009), Big Brown (2008), and Curlin (2007). All but Untapable won.

This will be the first year that the Haskell, which was first run in 1968, has attracted the first three finishers in the Kentucky Derby – Nyquist, Exaggerator, and Gun Runner.

“We want to get the best horse available that’s active at the time,” Kulina said. “That’s our objective every year. The public deserves the best possible quality you can give them.”

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Conversely, by attracting the best, you often sacrifice field size. As of Wednesday morning, seven runners were expected to enter. The others are American Freedom, Brody’s Cause, Awesome Slew, and Sunny Ridge.

“Of course field size is a reflection of competition,” Kulina said. “It’s a double-edged sword.”

Last year, seating for American Pharoah’s Haskell was sold out well in advance. This year, some seats are still available.

“We’re on a par with 2014 for a normal, big Haskell Day,” Kulina said. “There also is another big sports event in New Jersey on Sunday. The PGA is at Baltusrol. I don’t know how much that will affect us, but it has to impact us somewhat.”