07/23/2014 1:19PM

Haskell: Medal Count is still an enigma

Keeneland/Coady Photography
Medal Count won the off-the-turf Transylvania Stakes on Polytrack at Keeneland (above), but he also has wins on turf and dirt.

Even though we have seen a lot of Medal Count this year, there is a lot we still don’t know about him. His best distance? His preferred racing surface? And, to cut to the chase, where he fits in the 3-year-old division?

Even his trainer, Dale Romans, isn’t sure about the first two questions. “He can do just about anything,” Romans said. “I really don’t know.”

But Romans has little doubt regarding Medal Count’s quality. On Tuesday, he compared Medal Count’s potential to what he had previously seen in his best runners: turf champion Kitten’s Joy, Dubai World Cup winner Roses in May, Preakness winner Shackleford, and $3.5 million earner Little Mike.

On Sunday, Medal Count will be given the opportunity to prove his trainer right in the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. Medal Count comes into the Haskell off the best race of his career, a third-place finish in the Belmont Stakes.

Medal Count had a tricky inside trip in the Belmont. Never far back, jockey Robby Albarado had to be extremely patient with a cooperative Medal Count until he was able to angle out for the stretch run. At the sixteenth pole, there was little separating Medal Count and race winner Tonalist. At the finish, the difference was one length.

:: Haskell Invitational: Get PPs, watch Sunday's card live

Since beginning his career with a maiden win at Ellis Park last September, Medal Count has not missed a beat. In the nine months from his debut until the Belmont, he started nine times.

“I’ve only had a handful of horses in my career that get better the more you do with them,” Romans said. “Shackleford and Kitten’s Joy were like that, and so is Medal Count. The more you train him, the better he gets. The more you race him, the better he gets.”

Medal Count’s ability is difficult to judge because he has had an unusual season. He started the year with an optional-claiming win on turf at Gulfstream Park. Two races later, he won the off-the-turf Transylvania Stakes on Polytrack at Keeneland. That victory encouraged Romans to come back eight days later in the Blue Grass Stakes in the hope of earning enough qualifying points to get into the Kentucky Derby. Medal Count finished second and was in.

Three weeks later, he finished eighth in the Derby after having to steady sharply in the stretch. From there, it was on to the Belmont.

“He never really put it all together until I got him to Keeneland in the spring,” Romans said. “That’s why we tried to get him the Derby points.”

Because of Medal Count’s versatility, Romans has plenty of options following the Haskell. On Tuesday, he said two races that would be considered were the Travers and facing older horses over Del Mar’s synthetic surface in the Pacific Classic. If the Pacific Classic sounds like a big task for a 3-year-old, remember that Romans already has turned that trick, defeating Game On Dude with Dullahan in 2012.

One key to Medal Count’s ability to handle different surfaces and distances, Romans said, is that he is a very straightforward horse to train.

“He’s a unique horse. He never has a bad day,” Romans said. “Ask him to go fast, he goes fast. Ask him to go slow, he goes slow. He goes out and does his work, eats lunch, takes a nap, and wakes up looking for dinner.”

◗ The Haskell undercard includes five stakes: the Grade 2, $200,000 Monmouth Cup at 1 1/16 miles; the Grade 2, $200,000 Molly Pitcher for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles; the Grade 3, $150,000 Oceanport at 1 1/16 miles on turf; the Grade 3, $150,000 Matchmaker for fillies and mares at 1 1/8 miles on turf; and the $100,000 Teddy Drone at six furlongs.

◗ The Haskell Challenge, a free online handicapping contest, will be offered Sunday. Entrants will pick one horse in each of Monmouth’s 14 races. The winner will receive a VIP package for two to the Breeders’ Cup. For complete rules, visit www.haskellgame.com.

◗ Sunday’s Haskell card will offer a $250,000-guaranteed late pick four and a $100,000-guaranteed pick five. Both wagers have a 50-cent minimum. The day also includes a Haskell ball cap giveaway.