07/27/2012 2:51PM

Hovdey: $1 million purse can't promise big field

Jeff Coady/Coadhy Photography
Hansen will make his next start in the $750,000 West Virginia Derby.

Craig Fravel, then second-in-command at Del Mar, looked down upon the field of five parading postward for the 1997 running of the $1 million Pacific Classic and rightly wondered:

“That’s not much for a million dollars, is it?”

He was right. It wasn’t, even though the division of older horses in California at the time was dominated by horses like Gentlemen and Siphon, from the stable of Richard Mandella, and they were proving tough to beat at any price.

But Fravel was right because a million dollars was – and still is – supposed to be a magic number, a sum great enough to flush out contenders from far and wide. The idea that any owner or trainer in any part of the country would take a look at a million bucks on the table and simply shrug remains one of those mysteries that baffles racetrack operators to this day.

There are only six 3-year-olds in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on Sunday – including Wood Memorial winner Gemologist and Belmont Stakes runner-up Paynter – and no, that’s not much for a million dollars, especially when 3-year-olds are supposed to be the marquee division of American racing and the Haskell is supposed to be one of the gems of the post-Triple Crown season.

It’s also been known by more names than Roseanne. In its first modern incarnation, from 1946 to 1968, the Haskell was called the Choice Stakes, and with winners like Kelso, In Reality, Jaipur, and Saratoga, who would argue? In 1968 the Choice became the Monmouth Invitational. Winners Wajima, Coastal, Holding Pattern, and Majestic Light lent their luster. Then in 1981 it was determined that the name of Monmouth founding father Amory Haskell should be attached to the premier event of the summer, and so the Haskell Invitational was christened.

For those counting, four Hall of Famers – Holy Bull, Skip Away, Serena’s Song, and Point Given – have won the Haskell Invitational, along with a broad collection of champions. The money from other rich races spends just fine, but it is the Haskell that holds up best when history knocks, no matter how many horses show up.

The reason for the small field is both apparent and traditional. Since the 2000 running and its nine-horse field topped by Dixie Union, Captain Steve, and Milwaukee Brew, the average Haskell field has numbered about seven, which is not that far from six. And because the Haskell must fight for its runners with the $600,000 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga the day before and the $750,000 West Virginia Derby six days after, perhaps the good folks at Monmouth are lucky they got the half-dozen they did.

Lucky, especially since the three best colts in the country this year are out of action – I’ll Have Another and Union Rags permanently and Bodemeister temporarily. The Haskell was on the wish list for the connections of all three. Then again, so is next Christmas. Go ahead and make plans with a Thoroughbred, then listen for the laughs.

Also among the Haskell missing is Hansen, the 2-year-old champion of 2011 and winner of the Gotham this year. Hansen pushed a hot pace in the Kentucky Derby and faded to ninth, then bounced back to win the Iowa Derby at Prairie Meadows without breaking much of a sweat. His natural speed would seem to have been suited to Monmouth, where recent Haskell winners Peace Rules, War Emblem, and Lion Heart went wire to wire, and even the front-running unknowns Touch Tone, Coal Play, and Praying for Cash held on for second.

Dr. Kendall Hansen and trainer Mike Maker have different plans, though, and have chosen the West Virginia Derby for Hansen’s next start in a summer campaign they hope ends up in the Travers. Hansen, the owner, has something specific in mind.

“I’m kind of patiently waiting for his first time to hit triple digits on the Beyer scale,” Hansen said.

The last time anyone checked, there is no monetary gain in attaining a certain speed figure, other than maybe settling a bar bet. What about that $750,000 in West Virginia prize money?

“Winning a check is nice, but I make enough money being a doctor, so it’s gravy,” Hansen said. “It’s not as high up there as doing well at the big game. The attention of being around a spectacular horse is the most fun, I think.”

Hansen got a heady dose of that attention at Prairie Meadows on June 30 when Hansen won the 1 1/16-mile Iowa Derby by 10 lengths.

“It was kind of a shock, mingling with the fans a couple races before the derby,” Hansen said. “I was getting asked to sign autographs, souvenir toys, programs. After the race, there was actually a line of people waiting by the winner’s circle. I’ve never seen anything like that. A lot of people just wanted to pat me on the back and thank me for bringing the horse out there.”

And now it’s on to West Virginia. Still, Hansen must have had second thoughts when he saw the field for the Haskell.

“We probably made the right decision,” he said. “There’s some good horses in there, and it should be a pretty good fight. As a fan, I’d love to see how my horse would have done in there – I think we could have gotten the jump on Paynter, and Gemologist has speed, too – but I think we’re making the smart move being patient and concentrating on the Travers. We’ll get ’em next month.”