07/26/2013 3:45PM

Monmouth: Haskell provides Verrazano with shot to rejoin division's top tier

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Barbara D. Livingston
Micromanage (left) and Verrazano, training earlier this week at Saratoga, are uncoupled stablemates for Todd Pletcher in Sunday's Haskell Invitational.

Entering the weekend, the leadership in the 3-year-old division is a three-way battle among classic winners Orb, Oxbow, and Palace Malice.

On Sunday, Verrazano would like to crash that party when he faces Preakness winner Oxbow and five others in the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational Stakes at Monmouth Park.

The early leader of the 3-year-old division, Verrazano – winner of the Grade 1 Wood Memorial and Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby – didn’t handle the sloppy conditions at Churchill Downs nor have the best of trips when finishing fourth in the Kentucky Derby.

[HASKELL INVITATIONAL: Get PPs, watch Sunday’s card live]

“The one thing you can’t control is what the surface is going to be like at Churchill. That’s always underrated,” said Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Verrazano. “It could have been fast and he might not have liked it, but he certainly didn’t appreciate the way it was that day.”

There is a 60-percent chance of scattered storms in Oceanport, N.J., on Sunday, but Pletcher doesn’t have any excuses going into the Haskell. Verrazano got a successful tour of Monmouth Park last month when he won the Pegasus Stakes by 9 1/4 lengths in a race where his main rival, Itsmyluckyday, was pulled up early due to injury.

Verrazano -- owned in part by Jersey Shore residents Bryan Sullivan and Kevin Scatuorchio, who race as Let’s Go Stable -- has since come back with a series of steady workouts. At Friday’s post position draw, Verrazano drew the outside in the seven-horse field, giving jockey John Velazquez options as he decides whether to go to the lead or sit off the speedy Oxbow, who will break from post 5 under Gary Stevens.

“What I look forward to is a truly run race in which he can get into a really good rhythm,” said Pletcher, a two-time Haskell winner. “I don’t think he’s the kind of horse that wants to be thrown down. If anything, in the Wood Memorial, we probably had a little too much hold of him. I think he’s a free-running horse. He’s got a high cruising speed. If you don’t go with him you’re going to be in trouble and if you do you’re going to be in trouble.

“We’re not in there to take back,” Pletcher added. “At the same time we wouldn’t mind following Oxbow if the fractions were legit.”

Calumet Farm’s Oxbow, a son of Awesome Again, won the Preakness in front-running fashion and then finished a game second to Palace Malice in the Belmont Stakes. His trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, has altered Oxbow’s training pattern in hopes of having a fresh and multi-dimensional horse for the second half of the season.

Instead of regular workouts and counterclockwise jogs and gallops, Oxbow was jogged and galloped 1 1/2 miles to two miles each morning at Saratoga in clockwise fashion, also known as the wrong way.

“I would like to get a little bit more of a dimension on this horse where I can do more with him,” said Lukas, who won the 1995 Haskell with the filly Serena’s Song. “We’re not always going to get a Preakness situation. I feel pretty good where I got him mentally.”

Lukas said he has been impressed with how well Oxbow physically handled the rigors of the Triple Crown. He was one of just three horses – Orb and Will Take Charge were the other two – to have run in all three Triple Crown races.

Only four times in the last 20 runnings has the Haskell been won by a horse who did not participate in any of the three Triple Crown races. Bob Baffert, who has won six Haskells, including the last three, won the race in 2011 with Coil and in 2005 with Roman Ruler, neither of whom ran in a Triple Crown race. On Sunday, he will saddle Power Broker.

Baffert had wavered on whether to send Power Broker to the Haskell, ultimately deciding to do so following a strong workout at Del Mar on Monday.

Power Broker, who could also figure into the early pace scenario, is coming off a win in the Easy Goer Stakes at Belmont on June 8.

“He’s been training well,” Baffert said. “It’s going to be a good class check for him. I think he deserves a chance. I could’ve easily gone to [Mountaineer for the West Virginia Derby]. He’s not going to be the favorite. If he could run first or second it’d be worth the trip.”

Rosie Napravnik rides Power Broker from post 4.

Micromanage is another trying to win the Haskell without having run in a Triple Crown race. After a disappointing end to his 2-year-old season, Micromanage has won 2 of 3 starts this year. He is 2 for 2 at Monmouth, including a victory in the Long Branch Stakes on July 7, when he overcame a troubled trip.

“He needs to continue to move forward,” said Pletcher, who trains Micromanage for Mike Repole. “He’s going to have to take it to another level. He’s training as though he can do that. We’ll see.”

Joe Bravo rides Micromanage from post 6.

Micromanage would benefit from a rapid early pace, as would Golden Soul, who finished second to Orb in the Kentucky Derby at 34-1. Golden Soul did little running in the Belmont, finishing ninth.

Vyjack began the year with a pair of graded stakes victories over Aqueduct’s inner track. He was beaten only a length by Verrazano in the Wood Memorial before finishing 18th in the Kentucky Derby and eighth, albeit with a wide trip, in the Belmont.

Vyjack also was entered in Saturday’s Jim Dandy at Saratoga, but owner David Wilkenfeld said Friday night the horse would run in the Haskell. Paco Lopez rides.

Pick of the Litter, unraced since finishing third in the Grade 3 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland in April, completes the field.

The Haskell will be run as race 13 on a 14-race card that begins at noon Eastern and includes four other graded stakes.

The Haskell is the last leg of a pick four wager with a guaranteed pool of $250,000. Monmouth Park is also offering a pick five wager on races 8 through 12 with a guaranteed pool of $100,000.