Kelly Breen's Monmouth Park barn has often been the focus of attention in the days leading up to the Grade I Haskell Invitational.
Whenever fellow trainer and friend Bob Baffert had a top horse he was shipping in for the 11⁄8-mile test, Breen was kind enough to let said contender take up temporary residence within his shedrow.
As Baffert's record of four Haskell wins attests, Breen is nothing if not an exemplary host. This year, however, Breen can proudly say he brought the barn's spotlight all on himself.
The New Jersey-born Breen will try to secure the ultimate hometown glory Sunday when he saddles Belmont Stakes winner Ruler On Ice and Louisiana Derby victor Pants On Fire in the eight-horse field for the $1 million Haskell Invitational.
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Preakness Stakes hero Shackleford was deemed the 5-2 morning-line choice for the race after drawing post-position five on Thursday. Though Pants On Fire (post three) and Ruler On Ice (post six) were made the 4-1 co-third choices in the morning line, the George and Lori Hall-owned duo have combined the last few months to put Breen into a new stratosphere.
Ruler On Ice's Belmont Stakes upset gave the 42-year-old Breen his first career win in a Triple Crown race. Although Pants On Fire bled while finishing a disappointing ninth in the Kentucky Derby, the son of Jump Start came back to win the Grade III Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth last month — giving Breen two legitimate 3-year-olds to aim at the summer's premier races.
"We always used to go to Kelly Breen's barn with a big horse and now he's the star of the show," joked Baffert, who will bring Grade III winner and 3-1 second choice Coil into this year's Haskell.
Ironically, neither "Fire" nor "Ice" started out the year at the top of Breen's list.
Pants On Fire's Louisiana Derby triumph was a stunner. He only had a maiden win at that point and was supposed to be in the race as a rabbit for stablemate Nacho Business. Not only did the front-running dark bay steal that victory, he ended up going off as the second choice in the Kentucky Derby and, on June 18, posted a commanding 2-length win over fellow Haskell entrant Concealed Identity in the 11⁄16-mile Pegasus Stakes.
"He's been clean (bleeding wise) ever since the Kentucky Derby," Breen said. "The funny thing about Pants On Fire is he is so laid back you wouldn't ever think to see him as precocious as he's acting lately. Around the barn he's extremely laid back and when it comes time to running out of the gate he's there, he wants to go."
Aside from sharing the same owners and trainer, Ruler On Ice has little else in common with his stablemate.
Where Pants On Fire does his running on or close to the front end, Ruler On Ice is a closer whose talents were — until Belmont day — masked by his temperamental issues and mental development.
Prone to outbursts and general brattish behavior, Ruler On Ice was winless in stakes company until his three-quarter-length win in the 11/2-mile Belmont where he wore blinkers for the first time. Whether it was the blinkers or added distance that helped Ruler On Ice put in an honest effort that day, Breen is hoping he continues to see that version of the colt instead of the unfocused one he had become used to.
"I don't want to call him a clown but he is a test of training because ... deep down I feel he is a top-notch horse and he kept letting me down," Breen said. "He was always coming at the end of the race but he wasn't focused and Jose (jockey Valdivia) would say 'I know he's got more in him.' We're trying everything we can get to everything out of him."
Though Breen could have kept the two colts apart by sending one to the Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga on Saturday, he figured if they are each sitting on big runs, better to double his chances at securing his home track's biggest prize.
Breen worked the pair a half-mile together this past Sunday. Just as there were only inches separating them that day, their trainer also struggles to give one the nod over the other — something he hopes will be to their benefit this weekend.
"They could complement themselves on a day like the Haskell," Breen said. "You know, the way they train right now it's hard for me to decipher which one is going to win the Haskell, they're both training that well.
"And to say that if one of them is going to jump up or a horse is going to jump up and run a big race in the Haskell I'd rather have personally two shots at that than just one."