Over the past two weeks, the complexion of Sunday's Grade I Haskell Invitational has changed drastically, its final image mirroring the ongoing upheaval in the 3-year-old male division.
Within days of each other, Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags was sidelined and subsequently retired because of a suspensory injury, and fellow Grade I winner Bodemeister was declared out of Monmouth Park's signature $1 million race after spiking a fever.
In what could be viewed as a tribute to this sophomore class's depth, their spots were filled by Belmont runner-up Paynter and, as of Wednesday morning, Wood Memorial victor Gemologist.
The one constant in all the shifting was, no matter who shows up for the 11⁄8-mile race, Donegal Racing's Dullahan was slated to be there to take them on — an ironic role considering the chestnut colt was initially thought to be switching paths himself.
Despite being the two Grade I winners in the field, Dullahan and Gemologist were made the 3-1 co-second choices in the morning line behind 3-2 favorite Paynter on Thursday when a field of six was entered for Sunday's Haskell.
The three will break alongside each other with Dullahan drawing post No. 2, Paynter post No. 3 and Gemologist — who is making his first start since running 16th in the Kentucky Derby — leaving from post No. 4.
Though Dullahan is the only sophomore male in the states still in training with more than one Grade I win, the son of Even the Score is still seeking his first win over a dirt track. His previous two career victories came in the Grade I Breeders' Futurity and the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes over the Polytrack at Keeneland.
In the immediate aftermath of Dullahan's seventh-place finish as the favorite in the Belmont Stakes, trainer Dale Romans initially suggested the third-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby could be headed to the turf for his next outing. Since there is only one chance for a talented 3-year-old to grab prizes like the Haskell, though, Dullahan's connections figured there was nothing to be lost by taking one more high-profile swing.
"You know we're in a no-lose position," Jerry Crawford, managing partner of Donegal Racing, said. "If he wins, I'm a genius and if he loses, no one will notice.
"The fact is we've won two Grade I's and only I'll Have Another has won three. And the track surface (at Monmouth) is more like Churchill than it was at Belmont when it got really loose."
Dullahan's 0-for-5 dirt record is a contributing reason Zayat Stables' Paynter — who doesn't have a graded-stakes win — was given favoritism over his more accomplished rival. Though Paynter's front-running ability is viewed as a tactical advantage over what some perceive as a speed-favoring Monmouth surface, Romans remembers another Bob Baffert trainee by the name of Coil coming from last a year ago to catch Romans' classic-winning charge Shackleford in the Haskell.
If the Monmouth surface does prove a struggle for Dullahan, Romans is considering wheeling him back in the Grade I Secretariat Stakes on the Arlington Park turf on Aug. 18. Before his connections turn toward lusher grounds, they want to be sure he has every chance to stay on the course they believe he can prevail over.
"I still think on the right dirt track he'll run big," Romans said. "He needs to have a big win on dirt for his next career in the stud barn."
Dullahan will also be reunited with jockey Kent Desormeaux for the Haskell. Desormeaux lost the mount on the colt for the Belmont after failing a breathalyzer test in New York one day before the Preakness Stakes.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com.