07/30/2015 2:01PM

Upstart seen as main foe for American Pharoah

Barbara D. Livingston
Upstart (right) is the 6-1 second choice on the track line for the Haskell Invitational.

OCEANPORT, N.J. – Following a $750,000 purse increase Wednesday, seven 3-year-olds signed up on Thursday to face Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

Upstart, whose trainer, Rick Violette Jr., committed to the $1.75 million Haskell on Wednesday, has been made the second choice on the morning line at 6-1. Track linemaker Brad Thomas made American Pharoah the 1-5 favorite.

Upstart is cross-entered in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga on Saturday but is expected to race at Monmouth Park instead.

American Pharoah drew post 4 in the eight-horse field and will be ridden by Victor Espinoza. Upstart will break from the rail under Joe Bravo.

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Todd Pletcher entered three in the Haskell. Pletcher has cross-entered Competitive Edge in the Haskell and the Jim Dandy. Pletcher has been pointing Competitive Edge to the Haskell but on Wednesday entered him in the Jim Dandy after he decided not to run Materiality in that race. Competitive Edge is the third choice on the Haskell line at 8-1.

Pletcher also entered Nonna’s Boy and Dontbetwithbruno, who are both 30-1.

The best locally based runner in the field is Mr. Jordan, the winner of the Grade 3 Pegasus at Monmouth for trainer Eddie Plesa Jr.

“He’s 100 percent, couldn’t be doing any better,” Plesa said. “There’s no pressure on us in this race. I believe he’s getting better and better.”

The other Haskell entrants are Keen Ice (12-1), who finished third in the Belmont Stakes in his last start, and Top Clearance (30-1), a handy winner of a first-level optional-claiming race at Monmouth most recently.

The Haskell winner will receive a winner's purse of $1.1 million. As the field stands now, there will be show wagering on the Haskell.

The $750,000 purse increase came from out of the blue Wednesday, but it had been in the planning stages for weeks, said Dennis Drazin, the head of Darby Development, which operates the track on behalf of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.

“We think of the Haskell as the fourth jewel of the Triple Crown, and we wanted the purse to reflect that,” he said. “We had been trying to put together a three-race post-Triple Crown series with several other tracks, but it didn’t work out, and we decided to just add the money to the purse so all of the participants could share in it.”

Bob Kulina, the president of Monmouth Park, explained that the purse increase did not come from the horsemen’s purse fund.

“The purse account for the year has been budgeted at $26 million to $26.5 million, and that will not change,” he said. “We have all of these different pockets that are budgeted, and the money came from there – some from the operating budget, some from the marketing budget.”

This is the same mechanism that was used in 2001 to raise the purse to $1.5 million when Point Given won and in 2009 when the purse was increased to $1.25 million to attract Rachel Alexandra.

Drazin thought it was appropriate to raise the purse of the Haskell, which will be the richest non-Breeders’ Cup Thoroughbred race ever held in New Jersey.

“We did it to honor the horse, American Pharoah,” he said. “It is also important to send a message to everyone in New Jersey, and American Pharoah has helped us do it. I think the future of this sport is very rosy. I think it’s a matter of when, not if, that we get sports wagering, and that expanded casino wagering will happen in the near future, and Monmouth Park, while it might not get a casino, will get a revenue share.”

American Pharoah settling in

Jimmy Barnes, assistant trainer for Bob Baffert, said he is pleased with how American Pharoah has settled in since arriving from Southern California on Wednesday.

“His energy is at a high level,” Barnes said. “He’s very happy.”

On Thursday, Barnes sent American Pharoah out for a “mild jog” of one mile. American Pharoah came onto the track at the gap by the five-eighths pole and hung an immediate left. He went one lap around the track at a slow clip and then exited at the same gap.

Barnes said that if American Pharoah had not shipped across the country, Thursday still would have been a normal jog day for him following his Tuesday workout at Del Mar.

Barnes said American Pharoah would return to galloping Friday and probably go 1 1/2 miles.