07/27/2008 11:00PM

Nistle's Crunch home at last

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - The $1 million Haskell Invitational for 3-year-olds Sunday at Monmouth Park will be a homecoming for Nistle's Crunch.

A New Jersey-bred colt trained by Ken McPeek, Nistle's Crunch has never run in his native state for owners and breeders Michael Harrison, an attorney who is president of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Breeders' Association, and Dr. Alan Furst.

Nistle's Crunch is one of the confirmed starters for the 1 1/8-mile race. Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown is the headliner, with Atoned, Cool Coal Man, Truth Rules, and Hey Byrn also expected. Harlem Rocker and Magical Forest are listed as possible runners by racing secretary Mike Dempsey.

Nistle's Crunch is a versatile horse who has won three times, each on a different surface: synthetic and turf at Keeneland and dirt at Gulfstream Park.

Nistle's Crunch made his last three starts on grass, most recently finishing second in the Grade 3 Colonial Turf Cup.

"He's a New Jersey-bred and the owners are both from there," McPeek said. "Obviously, that's important to them, and the horse is doing really well. We had an option to run him back on the turf in the Virginia Derby or in this spot."

The presence of Big Brown entered the deliberations.

"Like everybody, we questioned whether Big Brown would run here," McPeek said. "We may well be running for second money, but we feel like the horse will be real competitive and he'll at least make Big Brown work."

The latest surface switch doesn't bother McPeek.

"I think dirt is as good a surface for him as any," McPeek said. "He's a big, strong, powerful colt and he handles just about anything. I don't think the dirt is even an issue."

Nistle's Crunch was scheduled to van to Monmouth on Tuesday from Churchill Downs.

The Haskell tops the biggest day of the year in New Jersey racing. Monmouth will offer a 14-race card Sunday that includes a pair of Grade 3, $150,000 turf stakes: the Oceanport and the Matchmaker for fillies and mares.

Murch's chances to close on turf improve

Murch turned in an encouraging effort in his debut for trainer Mark Hennig, rallying for third on July 3 at Monmouth.

The 5-year-old Murch gets an opportunity to build on that performance Wednesday in the feature race, a third-level optional $50,000 claimer.

The 1 1/16-mile race attracted six runners, with Saratoga Lulaby entered for the main track only.

"He came with a reputation that he has to come from behind," assistant Rob Rader said of Murch. "The course was not helping those type of horses. He dug in and gave us a pretty good shot at it. He was never a threat to win, but he closed pretty good and was trying at the end. That gives us something to look forward to."

As Rader indicated, the month of July on the Jersey Shore had been fairly dry - until last week - and the firm course favored horses on or close to the pace.

After a heavy, soaking rain, the ground could be gentler on Wednesday.

"The rain may help, not that it's going to be soft by then," Rader said. "It was getting pretty firm to where the leaders could go 46-and-change and keep going. Now some closers might have a little chance. Where it was, the deep closers were in trouble. They could not come from that far behind."

Staybridge rescheduled for Saturday

The hardest rain arrived Sunday afternoon, forcing the cancellation of the card after five races. The rained-out Staybridge Suites Stakes for 3-year-old fillies on the turf was rescheduled and will be redrawn for Saturday.