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Haskell field includes Derby, Preakness winners

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OCEANPORT, N.J. (AP) Leaving Monmouth Park hours after Triple Crown winner American Pharoah’s triumphant return to the races in last year’s Haskell Invitational, track president Bob Kulina already was thinking ahead.

The guy who has been around the Jersey shore track since the early 1970s knew nothing could top the spectacle of American Pharoah: 60,000 fans standing and cheering as the champion charged down the stretch in his first race as the first Triple Crown champion in 37 years.

Kulina, though, caught some racing luck for Sunday’s 49th running of the Haskell: Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist vs. Preakness winner Exaggerator, with Pharoah trainer Bob Baffert in the mix with American Freedom.

“I have to tell the truth,” Kulina said this week. “A year ago Sunday driving home, if you told me I was looking at this type of race the year after American Pharoah’s Triple Crown and Haskell victory, I would have said `Sign me up now.”‘

There’s plenty of storylines:

– The Nyquist-Exaggerator rivalry resumes. Nyquist won the first four meetings, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Derby. Exaggerator ended the streak – and any chance for another Triple Crown try – by handing Nyquist the only loss of his career in the Preakness.

– Baffert has won five of the last six Haskells and is seeking a ninth win in Monmouth Park’s showcase race.

– It’s the first time the top three Derby finishers – Nyquist, Exaggerator and Gun Runner- are running in the Haskell. It’s the first time since 2010 that it’s Derby winner vs. Preakness winner.

– On the local front, trainers and brothers-in-law Eddie Plesa Jr. and Jason Servis will saddle long shots Awesome Slew and New Jersey-bred Sunny Ridge. Sunny Ridge is bred and owned by Dennis Drazin, an advisor to the group that operates the track.

“You couldn’t have asked for a better field or a greater race,” Kulina said.

While anticipation builds for the 1 1/8-mile Haskell, there’s another race for 3-year-olds worth noting on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course – the $600,000 Jim Dandy. The field includes Belmont Stakes winner Creator, along with one-time Derby favorite Mohaymen, who ran fourth and hasn’t raced since.

Nyquist was made the 6-5 morning-line favorite for the six-horse Haskell, with Exaggerator next at 5-2. The Derby winner leaves from the rail; the Preakness winner from the outside post.

This will be Nyquist’s first race since running third in the Preakness on May 21. He then developed an elevated white blood cell count and was returned to his home base at Santa Anita. Trainer Doug O’Neill now says his colt is ready to go again.

“He’s doing really well. His last few works have been exceptional,” O’Neill said. “We’re coming into this race with a lot of optimism. For a six-horse field, it’s very deep.”

Nyquist, owned by J. Paul Reddam, is the reigning 2-year-old champion and has eight wins in nine career starts for earnings of $5.1 million.

Exaggerator, trained by Keith Desormeaux and ridden by his brother, Kent, finished 11th in the Belmont but appears charged up again for the Haskell.

His entry was a surprise since he’s been training at Saratoga, with plans calling for him to run in the Jim Dandy, then the Travers on Aug. 27. The Travers could be next for Nyquist, too.

“Those kinds of things are always fun,” Keith Desormeaux said of the rivalry. “Nyquist is a top horse and it’s always fun to outrun top competition.”

O’Neill called it kind of “a shock” when he found out Exaggerator was Haskell-bound.

“He’s such a hard-trying horse and a class horse. His move in the Preakness was stunning,” O’Neill said. “We’ve faced him a bunch. We respect him a ton.”

Look for Nyquist, under jockey Mario Gutierrez, to be on or close to the lead. Exaggerator relishes a late charge to the wire, and splashed his way to victory in the Preakness.

Baffert comes into the Haskell quietly, unlike last year’s Pharoah Fest. American Freedom was the 3-1 third choice, coming in with wins in the Sir Barton Stakes and the Iowa Derby. Gun Runner is 4-1, Awesome Slew 15-1 and Sunny Ridge 20-1.

Plesa understands what he’s facing in sending out long shot Awesome Slew.

“I feel like David fighting Goliath in this race when you look at these horses,” he said.

The field, from the rail out, is Nyquist (Mario Gutierrez, 6-5), Sunny Ridge (Nik Juarez, 20-1), Awesome Slew (Paco Lopez, 15-1), Gun Runner (Florent Geroux, 4-1), American Freedom (Rafael Bejarano, 3-1) and Exaggerator (Kent Desormeaux, 5-2).

 

Wood Memorial boosts purse to attract top horses

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NEW YORK — The Wood Memorial purse could increase to $1 million as part of a bonus created to entice the top 3-year-olds to run in the Kentucky Derby prep on April 7.

New York Racing Association officials said Saturday that the presence of any horse in the field with a previous Grade 1 or Group 1 victory would increase the purse from $750,000 to $1 million if the qualifying horse starts. In that case, the winner would receive $590,000, the runner-up would earn $190,000 and third would be worth $90,000.

The Wood is run at 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct. The race is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby prep series that awards 100 points to the winner, 40 to second, 20 to third and 10 to fourth. The top 20 horses on the leaderboard earn starting spots in the Derby on May 5.

Jack Van Berg dies at 81

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Jack Van Berg, a Hall of Fame trainer who oversaw Alysheba to victories in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, died Wednesday. He was 81.

He died in a Little Rock, Arkansas, hospital, according to a spokeswoman for Oaklawn Park, where Van Berg had relocated his training base after leaving Southern California in 2013. No cause was given.

Van Berg ranks fourth all-time among trainers in North America, with 6,523 victories from 41,164 starts, according to Equibase. He had career purse earnings of $85,925,482.

In the Derby, Alysheba and jockey Chris McCarron were nearly knocked down at the top of the stretch by Bet Twice. Alysheba recovered and won despite having just one career victory before the Run for the Roses. Alysheba won the Preakness to set up a try for the Triple Crown but finished fourth in the Belmont.

As a 4-year-old, Alysheba won the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic and went on to earn the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.

Van Berg saddled Gate Dancer to victory in the 1984 Preakness. That same year, he earned the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer.

Van Berg was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1985. His father, trainer Marion Van Berg, already was there, having entered in 1970.

From 1959-77, Van Berg was the leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1976, he won a record 496 races and was the nation’s leading trainer, with $2,976,196 in purse earnings.

In 1987, Van Berg became the first trainer to win 5,000 races when he saddle Art’s Chandelle to victory at Arlington Park outside Chicago.

He trained in Southern California for 41 years until moving to Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, after Hollywood Park closed in December 2013. Van Berg blamed the cities of Inglewood and Los Angeles and the state of California for the track’s closure.

“I just think it’s a pathetic thing,” he said at the time. “It’s ridiculous to let something like this that so many people love and thrive on close. They did everything they could to kill racing. I’ve had enough. I don’t like California racing anymore. I don’t like the way they run it and what they do.”

Van Berg mentored Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who began as an assistant to him.

Born June 7, 1936, in Columbus, Nebraska, John Charles Van Berg began training for his father in the 1960s. The elder Van Berg trained nearly 1,500 winners but was more successful as an owner, winning 4,691 races and $13,936,965. He was the first inductee of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame, and his son followed him.