08/04/2005 11:00PM

No sure thing this time

Bill Denver/Equi-Photo
Roman Ruler, shown with exercise rider Dana Barnes, will try to give Bob Baffert his third Haskell win.

OCEANPORT, N.J. - Bob Baffert takes aim at his third Haskell Invitational win in the last five years Sunday at Monmouth Park.

The silver-haired Baffert won the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell with a pair of 1-5 favorites: Point Given in 2001 and War Emblem in 2002.

Baffert returns this year with Roman Ruler, who figures to also be favored, but at a higher price given the more competitive nature of this year's race.

The , a 1 1/8-mile race for 3-year-olds, tops the biggest day of the year in New Jersey racing. A crowd of 40,000 is expected for the 14-race card, which features eight stakes and an optional claiming race that has lured last year's Jim Dandy winner, Purge. Gates open at 10 a.m. with first post at noon Eastern. The Haskell will be the 12th race with post time set for 6:10 p.m.

The Haskell and the Grade 3, $150,000 Taylor Made Matchmaker Stakes for fillies and mares on the turf will be televised on ESPN2 from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

As added incentive for handicappers, Monmouth will offer an all-stakes pick four covering races 9 through 12 with a guaranteed $100,000 pool.

For a second straight year, the Haskell lost a major horse to injury.

Monmouth planned a rollicking Smarty Party last year for Smarty Jones, but the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner never made it. Monmouth planned to roll out the red carpet on Sunday for Afleet Alex until he sustained a hairline fracture last week.

The show, in the best theatrical tradition, will go on.

"We're not limping," said Bob Kulina, Monmouth's vice president and general manager. "We're moving forward. The game moves on and other guys come to the forefront."

Based on his recent victory in the Grade 2 Dwyer, Roman Ruler could be ready to make that move. Four of his seven rivals enter off a victory of their own: Sun King (Grade 3 Leonard Richards), Park Avenue Ball (Grade 3 Long Branch), Palladio (Grade 2 Ohio Derby), and Papi Chullo (maiden race). The others are Chekhov, Golden Man, and Joey P.

Roman Ruler always has had enormous potential, as he demonstrated last year with a pair of Grade 2 wins, the Best Pal at Del Mar and the Norfolk at Santa Anita. He finished his campaign with a trouble-filled fifth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile as the favorite.

Roman Ruler missed the Triple Crown as Baffert battled the colt's persistent foot problems. But Roman Ruler looked like his old self in his comeback race, the Dwyer at Belmont Park on July 4.

With Jerry Bailey aboard for the first time, Roman Ruler launched a powerful four-wide move that carried him to a half-length win over Flower Alley, who came back to win the Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga.

"He has a good foundation with the 2-year-old season," Baffert said. "He's doing really well right now. He showed his brilliance last year and he's coming back to that form.

"The Dwyer race was fantastic off a layoff and he beat a really nice horse that came back and won. He's doing better now than he was for that race, so we're really excited."

Baffert said he doesn't need a lot of coaxing to come to the Haskell. "The fans are fantastic," Baffert said. "They really appreciate a good horse running there. I've always had - win, lose, or draw - a nice time there."

Sun King, trained by Nick Zito, will probably be the second choice. Sun King posted a pair of dominant front-running wins this year in the Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs and the Leonard Richards at Delaware Park, both Grade 3 stakes. He was 15th in the Kentucky Derby and fourth in the Preakness, 10 3/4 lengths behind Afleet Alex.

Park Avenue Ball will have a loud and vocal rooting section. Park Avenue Ball, trainer Jim Ryerson, jockey Chris DeCarlo, and owner Charles Hesse III were all born in the Garden State.

Park Avenue Ball won the Grade 3 Long Branch Breeders' Cup Stakes, Monmouth's Haskell prep, last time out and has the advantage of running at his home track.

"He's better off being here at Monmouth and not having to ship," Ryerson said. "He has shipped to some races and run well, but what it takes out of him is always a concern. It's a little less stressful to him to be here."

The field

Haskell Invitational
Purse: $1 million; 1 1/8 miles; Grade 1

1 Palladio R. Dos Ramos 118 10-1
2 Park Avenue Ball C. DeCarlo 118 3-1
3 Papi Chullo D. Lopez 116 15-1
4 Roman Ruler J. Bailey 119 9-5
5 Sun King J. Castellano 119 5-2
6 Golden Man C. Lopez 117 15-1
7 Joey P. A. Gryder 116 15-1
8 Chekhov G. Stevens 116 6-1

* Track odds
* Television: 5-6:30 p.m. (Eastern), ESPN2