07/29/2016 3:36PM

Hovdey: Haskell has been tough on Derby winners


The Haskell Invitational is a great race. At a million dollars, the pot is right. The distance of a mile and one-eighth offers the kind of test that brings the proper horses together. It is run on a Sunday – this Sunday – which validates a day of the week that has been all but abandoned by major racing events, and it is presented at Monmouth Park, which remains one of racing’s most important properties.

And yet, the question remains as to why any trainer whose name does not start with B and end with “fert” would want to buck obvious Haskell history. Bob Baffert has won all eight of his Haskells since the turn of the century, beginning in 2001 with Horse of the Year Point Given and most recently in 2015 with Horse of the Year American Pharoah.

In between there were War Emblem, Roman Ruler, Lookin At Lucky, Coil, Paynter, and Bayern. This year Baffert has sent American Freedom, winner of the Iowa Derby, a credential that normally should not strike terror into the hearts of such Haskell heavyweights as Nyquist, Exaggerator, and Gun Runner. Still, there’s Baffert.

“I know, I know,” said Doug O’Neill, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist. “I wasn’t sure how they do it here. Are we all listed as assistant trainers? But winning five out of the last six, that is truly phenomenal. He’s really got it ironed out.”

O’Neill tried the Haskell in 2012 with Handsome Mike, like Nyquist owned by Paul Reddam, but he finished fourth to Paynter. There have been other California-based trainers swoop in to take Haskells past, including Jerry Hollendorfer, Richard Mandella, and David Hofmans, so at least O’Neill can hope. Also, Nyquist is 6-5.

“I think the track here is fairly California-ish,” O’Neill said. “By all accounts speed is pretty tough here, and a lot of our top dirt horses for sure have a lot of speed.”

Including Nyquist, who went too fast for his own good in the Preakness, finished third, and came out of the race with an illness that required a week’s worth of antibiotics. That was his first loss in nine starts.

“Once his blood work was perfect and his temperature was normal for several consecutive days, then we gave him another week before we thought about training him again,” O’Neill said.

“It was nice for a change not to have a date circled as to where you wanted to go next,” the trainer went on. “For a while there, heading into the Triple Crown races, you’re kind of in a zone and you hope your horse is there with you. And he was, right up to the Preakness.”

They are calling this the 49th running of the Haskell, although from 1968 through 1980 it was known as the Monmouth Invitational Handicap and was won by such stars as Wajima, Majestic Light, and Coastal.

For the sticklers in the crowd, the modern Haskell began in 1997, which makes Sunday’s version its 20th as a million-dollar summer splash meant to lure the cream of the 3-year-old crop to the Jersey Shore – and away from the Jim Dandy at Saratoga.

I’ve been to three of those, which hardly qualifies as bragging rights, but each of them turned out to be a race worth remembering.

Belmont winner Touch Gold and Triple Crown iron horse Free House were the stars of that 1997 Haskell, with the exciting Tale of the Cat in the mix. With his damaged foot still patched from his Preakness stumble, Touch Gold won impressively, while his stablemate Awesome Again took the Jim Dandy the same afternoon. Dave Hofmans, front and center at Monmouth, trained them both.

In 1998, the stars of the division were Real Quiet and Victory Gallop, who provided more than enough Triple Crown thrills. Coronado’s Quest was always waiting in the wings, though, nursing minor injuries and grudges. He was a bona-fide head case, tamed by Shug McGaughey to do some remarkable things. They let him leave the walking ring early for the Haskell and have his private post parade, after which he defeated Victory Gallop in a close finish that withstood a claim of foul.

Following the Curlin trail in 2007 was the way to go, but his Haskell was a rare misfire in his nine starts that year. I tried not to blame myself when he finished third to Any Given Saturday and Hard Spun. Strangley enough, Baffert did not have a runner.

As for Nyquist, Kentucky Derby winners have not had much to say about the Haskell. There have been Baffert’s pair – War Emblem and American Pharoah – plus Big Brown in 2008. And that’s it among the 49 winners. If O’Neill is worried about that historical tidbit, he hid it well.

“We proud and privileged to be back in a big race and have him with a big chance,” O’Neill said.

Of more concern was the Baffert tradition of consuming the house specialty at Max’s Hot Dogs in nearby Long Branch on Haskell Day. And if Baffert does not make the trip, assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes takes one at Max’s for the team.

“We’re going to look for something different, make up our own lucky spot,” O’Neill said. “We’ll see how the race goes, and if it goes our way I’ll tell you where we ate that morning.”