For a moment during Thursday’s draw for the Grade I Haskell Invitational, the fanboy in trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. overtook the veteran horseman.
Yes, it would be the fantasy of fantasies should his charge Awesome Slew upset the compact field of six set to go to post at Monmouth Park on Sunday, especially when the field includes the winners of two-thirds of this year’s Triple Crown. But as the locally based Plesa glanced at his expected rivals, his sporting nature couldn’t help but give a tip of the cap to the quality of the company he is set to keep.
“What a tremendous field of horses in here, your first three finishers in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness winner, a couple local horses,” the affable Plesa said. “What could be more exciting? This is what horse racing is about. You take the dream out of it, which we all have, there is no race. My hat’s off to the Monmouth Park community and what they’ve done again.”
Few figured Monmouth Park could top the 2015 edition of its signature race when Triple Crown winner American Pharoah marched in to the Jersey Shore and put on one of his clinics in superiority. While there is no Triple Crown hero this season, the Haskell has succeeded in securing a Big Three of a different kind as champion Nyquist, Preakness victor Exaggerator and graded stakes winner Gun Runner — the top three finishers in this year’s Kentucky Derby, respectively — are set to be reunited in the $1 million, 1 1/8 -mile test.
“It’s kind of like getting the band back together,” joked David Fiske, racing manager of Winchell Thoroughbreds, which co-owns Gun Runner. “All the boys are back in town.”
Save for Belmont Stakes winner Creator, who is set to start in Saturday’s Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga, the Haskell will boast the consensus class of this season’s sophomore male division. And, has been the case for much of his nine-race career, it is reigning juvenile male champion Nyquist with the biggest target on his back as he attempts to do something he never has had to previously — rebound off a loss.
The son of Uncle Mo was unbeaten in his first eight starts, silencing critics who questioned his stamina and his overall quality with his 1¼-length victory over Exaggerator in the Kentucky Derby on May 7. On paper, the Preakness Stakes looked to be the classic that most fit Nyquist’s tactical wheelhouse but, instead, he got pressed by long shot Uncle Lino through a first quarter in :22.38 — the fastest opening quarter in the race’s 141-year history — and faded to third as Exaggerator finally got the best of his rival after four previous defeats to win by 3½ lengths over a sloppy track.
Just two days after that outing, Nyquist spiked a fever and missed the Belmont Stakes. In the five workouts trainer Doug O’Neill put into the colt to get him ready for his return, he has been mindful of not trying to change the program that brought Paul Reddam’s champion to the summit.
“We didn’t want to bring him back to the races until he was good and ready and his work the other day (1 mile in 1:39.40 at Del Mar on July 24) showed he was good and ready,” O’Neill said of Nyquist, who was installed as the 6-5 morning-line favorite out of post No. 1. “I thought his last work was the best I’ve seen out of him in a long time. We’re coming into this race with a lot of optimism. Gun Runner was super impressive in his last start (winning the Grade III Matt Winn) and Exaggerator is a very good horse, too.
“Hopefully he’ll bring one of his better races because he’s going to need to bring one of his better races in order to win.”
O’Neill doesn’t fret over what might have been had Nyquist been able to use his early speed in a Belmont Stakes test that very much favors his running style. What he does beat himself up over is what he says were his instructions to jockey Mario Gutierrez to go to the front come hell or high water in the Preakness — a decision he feels cost his charge his unblemished record.
“That was a big-time error on my part. I was just so confident going into it, and I just didn’t want any traffic troubles,” O’Neill said. “I went Donald Trump on them and said ‘You win the first turn, we’ll win the race’ and that really handcuffed (Mario). If we could all play it over again, the inside horse would have left and …we could have sat more chilly going into that first turn. But it’s all, as they say, hindsight.”
If Nyquist is the usual Nyquist, expect him to be up on the early pace along with Iowa Derby winner American Freedom as he attempts to earn his sixth Grade I win over a sixth different track.
How Exaggerator handles the Monmouth surface could be key in his attempt to redeem himself following his 11th-place run in the Belmont Stakes. Trainer Keith Desormeaux thought the son of Curlin struggled over the deep Belmont Park surface and wasn’t satisfied with how the 5-2 second choice on the morning line was getting over the Saratoga track in his morning works.
Should the rain in the forecast come to fruition and Exaggerator gets the wet track he loves, his late turn of foot should have every chance to land what would be his third Grade I triumph. Not to be overlooked, however, is the always-steady Gun Runner, who set a stakes record in winning the Grade III Matt Winn by 5¼ lengths at Churchill Downs on June 18.
“If one year ago, after American Pharoah’s Haskell victory, you would have told me I was looking at this type of event, I would have said ‘Sign me up now,’” said Bob Kulina, president of Darby Development LLC, operator of the racetrack. “To have the first three finishers in the Kentucky Derby, a second (Preakness) Triple Crown race winner … you couldn’t have asked for a better field or a greater race.”
Haskell Invitational field
1. Nyquist (Mario Gutierrez) 6-5
2. Sunny Ridge (Nik Juarez) 20-1
3. Awesome Slew (Paco Lopez) 15-1
4. Gun Runner (Florent Geroux) 4-1
5. American Freedom (Rafael Bejarano) 3-1
6. Exaggerator (Kent Desormeaux) 5-2
When: 5:47 p.m.
Where: Monmouth Park
Purse: $1 million (Grade I)
Distance: 1 1/8 miles
TV: NBC, TVG