07/29/2011 3:07PM

Monmouth Park: Opportunity knocks for Shackleford, Ruler On Ice in Haskell

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Bill Denver/Equi-Photo
A victory by either Belmont Stakes winner Ruler On Ice (above) or Preakness champion Shackleford in Sunday's Haskell would cement their grip on leadership of the 3-year-old division.

Sunday’s $1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park could either provide some clarity to the 3-year-old division or create more chaos. If form holds, bet on the latter.

A Haskell victory by either Preakness winner Shackleford or Belmont Stakes champion Ruler On Ice would give that horse the unquestioned lead in a division that has lacked a clear leader for most of the year. Should one of the other six horses entered in the 1 1/8-mile race prevail, however, then the division will remain in turmoil.

“If either one of us wins this race I think it definitely puts us ahead in the division,’’ said Dale Romans, trainer of Shackleford, who sandwiched a Preakness win around a fourth in the Kentucky Derby and fifth in the Belmont. “Then you got the Travers and that’ll play a lot into it.’’

“You could get a new shooter,’’ said Kelly Breen, who trains both Ruler On Ice and two-time graded stakes winner Pants On Fire for George and Lori Hall. “It could be a totally new twist.’’

Pants On Fire could be that horse to put a new twist on the division. He won the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds in March and was sent off the second choice in the Kentucky Derby, likely in part because he was being ridden by the popular female jockey Rosie Napravnik. Pants On Fire was in contention until the turn before he backed up to ninth. He was found to have bled through Lasix in the race.

After Breen got that cleared up, Pants On Fire came back to win the Grade 3 Pegasus at Monmouth on June 18 despite stumbling at the start. Breen has seen physical changes in the colt leading up to the Haskell.

“Physically, he’s impressed me in this last week,’’ Breen said Friday. “Taking a step back and looking at him he’s really matured, he’s gotten bigger, stronger. I’m looking for a big race out of him. I think his physical attributes are really blossoming in front of my eyes.’’

With Napravnik sidelined due to injury, Pants on Fire will be ridden by Elvis Trujillo.

Pants On Fire has the speed to be forwardly placed, but he will likely take up a stalking position outside of Shackleford, who looks to be the horse with the most early speed. The last time Shackleford ran 1 1/8 miles, he set a strong pace, only to be run down late by Dialed In in the final two jumps of the Florida Derby.

Shackleford, owned by Michael Lauffer and William Cubbedge, set the pace in the Kentucky Derby, but may have found 1 1/4 miles too far as he faded to fourth. In the Preakness, he battled the sprinter Flashpoint on the lead before carrying his speed to a half-length win over the Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom. Shackleford ended up fifth in the Belmont after setting the pace in the slop.

Following the Triple Crown, Romans sent Shackleford to WinStar Farm for a two-week vacation and has been impressed with his colt since he has returned to his care.

“He’s more focused on what this is all about,’’ Romans said. “He understands racing a good deal better.’’

Romans said it is most likely that Shackleford will be on the lead in the Haskell, but added he can sit off another horse if somebody goes crazy.

“We’re not going to take him back,’’ Romans said. “We’ll let him break running and see how the race sets up. If somebody wants to set an unrealistic pace, then he’ll have no problem sitting off it. I thought having a target [in the Preakness] was good. It built his heart up.’’

Coil may be the wildcard in the field. Coil, trained by four-time Haskell winner Bob Baffert, is 3 for 5, including a victory in the Grade 3 Affirmed Handicap at Hollywood Park on June 11. He is coming off a head loss in the Grade 2 Swaps, a race in which he tugged hard at his rider, Martin Garcia.

Baffert is taking the blinkers off in hopes of getting Coil to relax better. He will break from the rail under Garcia. Last year, Baffert and Garcia teamed to win the Haskell with Lookin At Lucky, who also broke from the rail.

“He’s training as good as any horse I brought in there,’’ said Baffert, who won the 2001 Haskell with Coils’ sire, Point Given. “His r é sum é is not as strong as the other ones. We’ll find out what we have here.’’

Astrology was good enough to run third in the Preakness Stakes but ran an uncharacteristically poor race when sixth in the Iowa Derby. Trainer Steve Asmussen, who won this race in 2009 with Rachel Alexandra, said he has no plausible excuse for the Iowa Derby debacle, but also has no reason not to run Astrology back in this spot.

Joe Vann, trained by two-time Haskell winner Todd Pletcher, won the Illinois Derby and could be a forward factor in this race. Concealed Identity beat Ruler On Ice in the Federico Tesio at Pimlico and finished second to Pants On Fire in the Pegasus. J.J.’s Lucky Train is a sprinter who will try to go 1 1/8 miles for the first time.

The Haskell goes as race 12 on a 14-race card that begins at noon Eastern and includes seven other stakes. The Haskell, with a 5:43 p.m. post will be shown live on ABC Sports during a one-hour program that begins at 5 p.m. As part of the Win and You’re In program, the Haskell winner will earn a berth in this fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

Monmouth is offering a 50-cent pick four with a guaranteed pool of $250,000 on races 11-through-14 and a 50-cent pick five with a guaranteed pool of $100,000 on races 6-through-10.