To Monmouth Park's delight, the Grade I Haskell Invitational has a strong recent history of being able to gather a diverse group of 3-year-olds and peg the definitive leader among the bunch.
Last season, Lookin At Lucky used the Jersey shore as his showcase when his 4-length triumph over the likes of Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver backstopped him to divisional honors.
Three years ago, dual classic winner Big Brown put his non-finish in the Belmont Stakes behind him with his Haskell victory while 2009 saw superfilly Rachel Alexandra dismantle Belmont Stakes winner and eventual champion Summer Bird in the 11⁄8-mile test to leave no doubt who the best sophomore of either gender was.
The Haskell's ability to produce clarity will be put to perhaps its most daunting test this Sunday. Because if this year's 3-year-old males have proven one thing, it's that they are remarkably consistent in their inconsistency.
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Preakness Stakes winner Shackleford and Belmont Stakes victor Ruler On Ice have a chance Sunday to do what none of their classmates have yet: establish themselves as the firm leader of the sophomore male division.
The two classic winners headline a field of eight in the Haskell. After spending the first half of the year beating each other up, their respective connections would love nothing more than to be the ones to put a stop to all the parity.
If Thoroughbred racing had BCS rankings, this would qualify as one of those years where whoever gains the No. 1 spot immediately gets beaten in the next game.
Reigning juvenile champion Uncle Mo was upset in the Grade I Wood Memorial and knocked off the Triple Crown trail with a liver ailment.
After finishing second in the Preakness and a troubled sixth in the Belmont, Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom is out for the rest of the season with a leg injury.
Shackleford could have been the division's leader had he held after setting leisurely fractions in the Belmont, but he gave that away when he faded and finished fifth behind Ruler On Ice — who hadn't won a stakes race prior to his upset score in the 11/2-mile classic.
No 3-year-old male in this country has more than one Grade I victory to his credit this season. Thus, if Sunday's winner could follow up with another big run in the Grade I Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 27, they could practically guarantee themselves some Eclipse Award hardware.
"I think we're all even right now," Shackleford's trainer Dale Romans said of the 3-year-old class. "I think Animal Kingdom's up against it if one of us goes on and wins another Grade I especially here at the Haskell or Travers. And I think if Ruler On Ice or our horse wins this race, then they have to be considered in the lead."
The flashy Shackleford competed in all three legs of the Triple Crown this year and has been training well since getting a two-week freshening at WinStar Farm following his Belmont loss.
The 11⁄8-mile Haskell should be an ideal distance for the front-running son of Forestry. Though Shackleford could have company on the lead in the form of Ruler On Ice's stablemate, Louisiana Derby winner Pants On Fire, the chestnut colt showed in the Preakness that he could effectively take back if someone else wanted to gun it.
"We're going to let him break running, and if someone wants to set an unrealistic pace he has no problem sitting off of them," Romans said. "He's had a grueling year and he is still holding his weight and still looks great. He hasn't shown any signs of being tired and his last two works were spectacular."
Ruler On Ice's best stakes effort prior to his Belmont win was a second-place finish behind fellow Haskell entrant Concealed Identity in the Federico Tesio Stakes on May 7.
Instead of coming from off the pace as he had in his previous six outings, the headstrong gelding rated in second during the Belmont. Being closer up proved more effective for Ruler On Ice, but trainer Kelly Breen isn't sure the pace of the Haskell will allow that to happen.
"They went a half mile at :49 and it's a lot easier to be sitting second than when they're going to go in :47," Breen said. "You see a couple of these horses that have won the Belmont and haven't gone on to do anything else so I'd like to see him prove a point. It'd make me happy if he would validate and run a big race in the Haskell."
Coil, winner of the Grade III Affirmed Handicap at Hollywood Park, will be making his dirt debut Sunday but was made the 3-to-1 second choice in the morning line.
Trainer Bob Baffert, who has four Haskell victories, said this weekend will be a class test for Coil. He could easily say the same for the rest of the sophomore bunch.
"These next two races are pivotal in people's guessing on who is going to be top 3-year-old," Breen said. "The races are going to decide it. I just hope my horses show up."