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.”

Neal Baker More than 1 year ago
I recall reading that Hansen would be pointing to the Haskell once Union Rags went down. The Monmouth surface fits his style, it's a prominent Grade I, and sets up much better for the Travers than the WV Derby. So what do we make of all this ? Under the table shenanigans between WV and Hansen ? That's my bet. Hansen has heart and courage that his owner is in short supply of.
Mike Bilinskas More than 1 year ago
People in charge of T-bred racing are the only ones to blame. The way they allow these stakes races to be run in ridiculous, instead of a national Stakes schedule with 1 big 3 year old stake race a month, they have 3 in 6 days.. What a joke..
Vince Lentini More than 1 year ago
tracks are individual business entities with specific race days. They are notrun for your pleasure
GOODWIN More than 1 year ago
No they are not, Vince, but Mike has a point, and if racing finally got rid of all these little kangaroo courts in each state and had a single, national administrative entity, it might be better able to compete with the big four which, incidentally, DO have one governing body for the entire nation (and parts of Canada, I might add...)
kskz More than 1 year ago
Economical crisis happened all over the world. If you need a SUPPORT INCOME let’s get a secure way at MOREPAY8.COM
Elizabeth More than 1 year ago
Have ALWAYS thought this very nice horse is overrated and I thnk this owner and trainer are taking the path they are because they're beginning to feel that way as well. I will always say that Union Rags should've been the 2 year old champ. He ran and won in many more prestiges races while Hanse only beat him a head because of Rags running green in the stretch. If he didn't take that turn to the outside, he wins the race. The voting idiots should've not looked at all the most recen hype within a month or two of the Breeder's Cup but should've considered the whole year. Same thing with Animal Kingdom winning 3 year old colt. All he did was win the Derby while Shackleford only won the Preakness, he showed up and danced every dance to the fullest. What a horse he is. Even Stay Thirsty did more than Animal Kingdom did. Yeah I know it was the Derby he won, but come on, let's have some votes done by looking at each horse's body of work for the whole year. /Tangent rant off
Saw Mill Worker More than 1 year ago
Not in So Ca.
Jack Twee More than 1 year ago
Could have been some good racing but instead we get this,What a waste.
Paul_Tuon More than 1 year ago
I just hope that Dr. Hansen wash his mouth before he kisses his beautiful girlfriend. He seems to like kissing the dirt more than kissing his beautiful girlfriend when Hansen wins. Whatever his quirkiness is, he is a character that we rarely seen in horse racing. You got to give him credit for making a fool of himself. Not often we see a grown man/woman kneel down on cement pavement and start licking the pavement. I don't know Mountaineer Park that well, does anyone know if the winner circle contain cement pavement or just plain dirt? It'll be interesting to see if Mountaineer has dirt winner circle and Dr. Hansen kneel down and start kissing the dirt.
Kendall Hansen More than 1 year ago
I think I will reserve that for Breeders Cup or Classic Races. It was spontaneous...totally. The Churchill Downs winner circle tasted a bit sandy. I was lucky I did not lick any shi_.) As for my fiance. I will take your advice to heart. She is out of my league. She is too good for me, so I can use all the help I can get! Just wish she could be with me for all these wonderful races and memories. She won't have her fiance visa and be here until November or December.( Look for me to get very boring when she arrives. She distracts me quite a bit. ))
Morris More than 1 year ago
they are still waiting for the real hansen to show up. "an ole railbird"
Brian Fitzpatrick More than 1 year ago
I love how Hansen says that "as a fan, I'd love to see my horse would have done in there". So by not putting his horse in there, he must be saying to hell with the fans.
Kendall Hansen More than 1 year ago
Come on Brian!!..really?
LINDA ZEIGENFUSE More than 1 year ago
a SPECTACULAR HORSE who is DOC HANSEN talking about HUH HUH!!!
Mark Scheider More than 1 year ago
Aside from Bodemeister, what 3 year old is a MORE spectacular horse than Hansen?
Kendall Hansen More than 1 year ago
Thanks Mark.... Linda, let's let Hansen decide this the second half of the year. Last year yes he was truly Spectacular!