07/27/2012 4:44PM

Haskell: Nonios could spring surprise at Monmouth Park

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Nonios will make his first start on dirt in Sunday's Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

Paynter and Gemologist are the marquee names going into Sunday’s Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. Nonios could be the name people are talking about coming out of the race.

If he can successfully transfer his synthetic form from California to the dirt of the Jersey Shore, Nonios could be poised to pull off an upset in the Haskell, the major event of the Monmouth Park meeting.

The Haskell, being run for the 45th time, tops a 14-race card that includes five other stakes. First post for the marathon program is noon, and the Haskell, race 13, is scheduled for 6:17 p.m. The Haskell is the last leg of an all-graded stakes pick four that has a guaranteed pool of $250,000.

Paynter will likely be favored based on his performance in the Belmont Stakes, when he made all the pace but was beaten a neck by Union Rags in the final strides.

Gemologist will likely be the second choice based on his 5-for-6 record that includes a victory in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial. He hasn’t run since finishing 16th in the Kentucky Derby, a race from which he emerged with a bruised foot.

Nonios didn’t participate in those high-profile races. On April 7, the day Gemologist won the Wood and Paynter finished fourth in the Santa Anita Derby, Nonios was finishing third in a second-level allowance race at Golden Gate. It was his first loss, one trainer Jerry Hollendorfer felt shouldn’t have happened.

[HASKELL INVITATIONAL: Get PPs and watch Sunday’s card LIVE]

“After that race, I felt the horse should be undefeated,” Hollendorfer said. “His regular rider was [Russell] Baze, and I sent Baze to Los Angeles to ride for me in a stakes. I put a rider on him that wasn’t familiar with him, and he got the horse running too late.”

Nonios didn’t run again until June 3, when he won the Grade 3 Affirmed Handicap at Betfair Hollywood Park. On July 4, in the Grade  -2 Swaps, Nonios couldn’t run down a loose-on-the-lead Blueskiesnrainbows, falling three-quarters of a length short to that Bob Baffert trainee.

“I would like to think if we had a better pace that day we could have won, but that’s just making an excuse,” said Hollendorfer, who won the Haskell in 1989 with King Glorious. “I’m not going to make that excuse.”

The big question Nonios will have to answer is if he can run on dirt. Hollendorfer said that Nonios trained over the dirt at Pleasanton as a 2-year-old and seemed to handle it fine.

Corey Nakatani will be in from California to ride Nonios, who breaks from the rail.

Baffert has won the Haskell five times, including the last two with Lookin At Lucky and Coil.

Paynter nearly stole the Belmont on the front end, losing when he came off the rail allowing Union Rags to slip through.

Baffert said Paynter lost a hind shoe in that race. Paynter has fired bullet works over the dirt at Santa Anita and the synthetic surface at Del Mar.

“He’s training great,” Baffert said. “He should run a big race.”

Paynter, who will be ridden by Rafael Bejarano for the first time, figures to be on the lead from the time the gates open.

“He’s a fast horse,” Baffert said. “He hasn’t moved backward. I think he’s just getting better.”

Trainer Todd Pletcher thought he had a great shot to win his second Kentucky Derby with Gemologist. But the colt finished 16th and two days later was diagnosed with a bruised foot.

Since he resumed training, Gemologist’s works have gotten progressively better, including a visually impressive five-furlong move in 58.57 seconds Sunday at Saratoga.

“I think he looks about as good as a horse can look at the moment,” said Pletcher, who won this race in 2006 with Bluegrass Cat and 2007 with Any Given Saturday. “His breeze here Sunday at Saratoga was exceptionally good.”

Gemologist has the speed to keep Paynter within striking distance. Javier Castellano rides from post 4.

“I think ideally he’s best suited to stalking another horse,” Pletcher said. “We’ll most likely be doing that, but he’s won on the front end. If no one decides to go, we can be there.”

Dullahan is winless in five tries on dirt and is coming off a disappointing seventh-place finish as the favorite in the Belmont Stakes.

Trainer Dale Romans is hoping for a tighter track than he had at Belmont and a fast pace.

“I think the perfect scenario is we get a good, fast pace upfront and he can kick home sort of like he did in the Blue Grass,” said Romans, who has reunited Dullahan with Kent Desormeaux. “They say he’s training super [at Monmouth], he had a great work at Churchill before he left. I think we’re in good shape. I think this is his opportunity.”

Handsome Mike, who has not run since the Spiral Stakes, hails from the same connections as Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another. Mario Gutierrez rides for owner Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O’Neill.

Stealcase, who finished a neck behind Paynter when the two ran second and third in the Derby Trial, completes the field. Shaun Bridgmohan rides.