Kentucky Derby

Top 3-year-olds set for showdown in Haskell

Lookin At Lucky, guided by exercise rider Dana Barnes on Saturday, hasn't raced since his victory in the Preakness Stakes.
Lookin At Lucky, guided by exercise rider Dana Barnes on Saturday, hasn't raced since his victory in the Preakness Stakes. AP

It is one of the most common hits Thoroughbred racing is subject to these days — the ongoing complaint over the sport's seeming inability to get its top performers together to settle any debates about their ability on the track.

Like many of racing's problems, there is no silver bullet that's going to permanently solve it anytime soon.

But for a couple of minutes shortly after 5:40 p.m. on Sunday, Monmouth Park will have done its part to temporarily unburden racing of its albatross.

While the Thoroughbred world waits to see whether the Rachel Alexandra-Zen yatta showdown ever takes place, the 43rd running of the $1 million, Grade I Haskell Invitational has managed to gather virtually all the 3-year-old male stars in an eight-horse showdown that might have as much impact on the divisional honors as the Triple Crown.

In addition to luring Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver and Preakness Stakes victor Lookin At Lucky, the 11⁄8-mile Haskell includes Grade I winner and Derby runner-up Ice Box, Preakness runner-up First Dude and stakes winners Uptowncharlybrown and Trappe Shot.

This year's sophomores might not yet be the household names the aforementioned champion divas are. Still, no division generates as much consistent glamour as the 3-year-olds.

"Any time you have the Derby winner, the Preakness winner, that's huge in our industry, so a lot of people will be watching it," said Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, trainer of Lookin At Lucky. "That's what racing's all about is to try to get all the stars together. ... So it's really a pretty strong race.

"When you have the main players in a big race like that, that's so important for our industry."

To its credit, the Haskell has rarely lacked for star power. The 2009 edition saw Preakness heroine Rachel Alexandra trounce Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird by 6 lengths.

The 2007 running, which featured Preakness winner and eventual two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, Kentucky Derby runner-up Hard Spun and race winner Any Given Saturday, is considered one of the best Haskell fields in recent years. But the current group might go down as the race's deepest field ever.

"The Haskell's a great race, and this is the toughest Haskell I've seen," said trainer Nick Zito, who will send out Ice Box and long shot Our Dark Knight on Sunday.

Super Saver and Lookin At Lucky are most primed to move to the head of the 3-year-old class with a victory on Sunday — but the two colts come into the race on different trajectories.

Following a troubled sixth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby — his third straight problematic trip — Lookin At Lucky saw both his jockey and fortunes change when upstart Martin Garcia took over for Garrett Gomez and guided the son of Smart Strike to a 3/4-length triumph in the Preakness.

"He's always showed me signs of greatness. He just has the worst luck — his name has plagued him, I'm telling you," Baffert said. "The thing is, we need a clean trip and, if he gets the clean trip, he gets the job done. He can really accelerate, he can get to a really good horse, so that's the thing that makes him so special."

Super Saver, like Like Lookin At Lucky, has not run since the Preakness but, where his rival found redemption at Pimlico, the Derby winner faded to eighth that day and comes into the Haskell with a little to prove.

"He's training exceptionally well," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "During the freshening, he's put on weight and gained strength. His mental outlook is excellent."

Super Saver and "Lucky" have the Triple Crown wins on their résumé, but there are those who believe Ice Box and First Dude might have snatched those victories under different circumstances.

Following his dramatic rally to get second in the Derby after being checked up three times, Ice Box was considered the heavy favorite in the Belmont, only to finish ninth.

How Ice Box fares Sunday might depend on what kind of fractions the front-running First Dude sets. The son of Stephen Got Even gamely fought to finish second in the Preakness after carving out fractions of 22.91 and :46.47, and he was narrowly beaten by Fly Down for second in the Belmont after setting an easy opening half of 49.19.

Zito's other entrant, Our Dark Knight, could be one to prompt First Dude early on, but trainer Dale Romans says his charge is tactical enough to avoid a duel.

"He seems to have come out of the Triple Crown as good or better than he went in," Romans said. "He doesn't have to be on the lead but, if he breaks sharply, he'll be there. If someone wants to go, then he can sit off.

"It's a very tough race. The winner of this is going to put themselves at the top of the 3-year-old class."