Updated on 09/17/2011 9:59PM

Jersey's own shoot for Haskell

Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO
Park Avenue Ball, working Tuesday at Monmouth, will try Sunday to become the first Monmouth-based horse to win the Haskell since 1996. His trainer, Jim Ryerson, finished second with Meadow Flight in his only Haskell appearance in 1994.

OCEANPORT, N.J. - The $1 million , the richest race in New Jersey, has become easy pickings for high-profile owners, trainers, and jockeys who invade Monmouth Park and make off with the money.

The last Monmouth-based Haskell winner was Skip Away in 1996. Recent out-of-state winners include the Bobby Frankel-trained Peace Rules, as well as Point Given and War Emblem, who were both trained by Bob Baffert. Baffert will send out expected favorite Roman Ruler in Sunday's Haskell.

Last year's Haskell winner finally had a local-connection, as "Jersey Joe" Bravo scored his first Haskell victory aboard Lion Heart. The win, however, was for the international team of trainer Patrick Biancone and owners Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor.

On Sunday, Park Avenue Ball, who is New Jersey through and through, will have a legitimate chance to win the 37th running of the Haskell after an impressive victory in the Long Branch Breeders' Cup. His chances increased markedly last week, when Preakness and Belmont winner Afleet Alex was declared from the race with a leg fracture.

Park Avenue Ball's connections have deep roots in New Jersey. Jockey Chris DeCarlo hails from Edison, about 20 miles north of Monmouth; trainer Jim Ryerson and owner-breeder Charles Hesse III were born in Long Branch, one town over from the track; Park Avenue Ball, a New Jersey-bred, was foaled at Greenfields Farm in nearby Colts Neck.

"Why not keep the money here?" said DeCarlo.

DeCarlo, enjoying a resurgent season at Monmouth, is the only member of the team with a Haskell win. He rode Wise Times to victory in 1986 at age 17.

"This is the biggest race in New Jersey, my home state," said DeCarlo, who is now 36. "At the time I did it, I didn't appreciate how hard it was to win. It's a race everybody wants to win, and I was fortunate enough to do it when I was young."

Ryerson is best known for developing Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Unbridled's Song.

"It's not easy to have a 3-year-old going good at this time," said Ryerson, 52, who finished second to Holy Bull with Meadow Flight in 1994, his only Haskell appearance. "Triple Crown races and the Haskell are big to me, but I don't dwell on them, because I know it's so hard to get that type of horse."

Hesse, who along with his wife, Marianne, race as the Char-Mari Stable, has long been associated with Monmouth. His father's construction company built the racing strip in the 1940's, and Hesse oversaw its reconstruction in the 1970's.

The Haskell has long been a goal for Hesse, who finished second in 1993 with Storm Tower and fourth in 1999 with Unbridled Jet.

"This race is very important," Hesse said. "We decided to skip the Kentucky Derby, and we gave [Park Avenue Ball] time so he would be fresh and fit for the Haskell."

Park Avenue Ball is the product of a mating of Citidancer to Road to the Ball, a New Jersey-bred mare who won 4 of 23 races for Hesse from 1995-98.

Hesse, 69, is trying to establish Unbridled Jet as a stallion, but Unbridled Jet's bloodlines were too close to those of Road to the Ball for a mating. That opened the door for Citidancer.

Hesse sells many of his yearlings, but fortunately he hung on to Park Avenue Ball.

"This was one horse I told them to keep," said pedigree advisor Buzz Chace. "I told them not to sell him, because he looked like a really nice colt. They sold a lot of yearlings that year but kept this one, who turned out to be a pretty nice horse."

Park Avenue Ball has won graded stakes at 2 and 3. He captured the Grade 2 Futurity at Belmont Park last year.

"He has just steadily gotten better," Ryerson said. "From 2 to 3, he improved, which is what you always hope for but don't always get."

Park Avenue Ball didn't win in Florida this winter, but he didn't disgrace himself with a second-place finish in the Grade 2 Hutcheson Stakes. He got bumped around early in the Fountain of Youth and finished sixth.

Park Avenue Ball then ran in the Grade 1 Florida Derby. Ryerson said he was not initially planning to run in the Florida Derby, but that the outbreak of strangles, a contagious respiratory infection, limited his shipping options. Park Avenue Ball, a 26-1 longshot, finished fourth and was beaten only five lengths by the winner, High Fly.

"He gave a good account of himself," Ryerson said. "He broke poorly and still ran a good race."

Ryerson decided to find a one-turn race next, and he narrowed the choices to the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs and the Grade 3 Withers at Aqueduct in late April. The Withers was the choice, and Park Avenue Ball finished second to eventual Preakness runner-up Scrappy T.

At that point, the focus shifted to the Haskell. After being given a freshening, Park Avenue Ball returned to action July 16 with a powerful rally that produced a 6 1/4-length win in the Grade 3 Long Branch Breeders' Cup Stakes, Monmouth's traditional Haskell prep.

"I was pleasantly surprised at how well he ran," Ryerson said.

So was DeCarlo, who was aboard for the first time.

"I'm feeling real confident," DeCarlo said. "When I asked him to go, he gave me a really good turn of foot."

A similar performance Sunday could produce a huge victory that would reclaim the Haskell trophy for the home team.