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).