When we discuss major stakes races for 3-year-olds, the name of Bob Baffert is inescapable. After all, the just-off-suspension trainer has won an incredible 16 Triple Crown races. However, when you look for the major 3-year-old race that he has been most dominant over in his career, it is without question the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park, which will be shown this Saturday on CNBC from 5 to 6 p.m. ET.
Baffert has won the Haskell in nine of its last 21 runnings. In his career, Baffert has started 15 horses in the race and produced nine wins, five seconds and one third. That’s right: he’s 15-for-15 “in the money.” His dominance has led to his horses being backed heavily at the windows. In fact, the average odds of his nine winners is $1.38-1, meaning they have averaged a win payoff of just under $4.80 for a $2 ticket.
To be sure, there are bettors who will run to the windows to support Baffert in the Haskell this year, given his record in the race. However, this might be a good year to steer away from his horse Taiba in the Haskell, as he might have some major factors working against him.
Keep in mind that Taiba was second choice in the Kentucky Derby and finished 12th in the race. I felt that his Santa Anita Derby win was as a result of a golden trip sitting behind a speed duel in a six-horse field. He was far from good enough to win going 10 furlongs in his 3rd career start in the 148th Kentucky Derby. As is the case with most Baffert horses, he has posted outstanding workouts leading to his first start since the Derby, but I’ve yet to see this $1.7 million 2-year-old purchase perform at the level that he would have to in order to win the Haskell.
This year’s Haskell will have outstanding quality in the field, and that is indicative of how top-level 3-year-olds are trained these days. Consider the fact that in 2021 and 2022, no horse competed in all three legs of the Triple Crown, as it is a grind that most trainers don’t see as worth putting their horses through unless they have a shot at immortality. Typical of this trend, this year’s Haskell has attracted an undefeated horse with seemingly limitless talent who did not run in any of the legs of the Triple Crown. His name is Jack Christopher, and he is trained by Chad Brown.
Jack Christopher has won his four starts by an average margin of over six lengths. While he has never gone nine furlongs or around two turns as he will have to in the Haskell, he has won twice going a one-turn mile. In both of those races, he had plenty to spare in the end, and I would be surprised if the extra furlong caused a problem for him. As his trainer, Brown has to determine if he will evolve to the point where he is suited to the mile-and-a-quarter of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. His start in the Haskell is the first step of that process, as Chad Brown determines whether he is on a path to the Dirt Mile or the Classic in November.
The 1-2 finishers in the June 12th Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs are likely for the Haskell, and they are both legitimate contenders. The Brad Cox-trained Cyberknife won the Arkansas Derby this spring but had a wide trip throughout in the Kentucky Derby, finishing a wrapped-up 18th. He bounced back from that defeat with a nose victory in the Matt Winn. The horse he defeated by a mere nose in the Matt Winn was the Dale Romans trainee Howling Time, who has the mark of an improving horse. He had an impressive win in the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs last fall but then posted three consecutive disappointing performances in stakes races. His last two starts, however, indicate that he could be on an upward cycle in terms of his form. He posted a five-length win in an allowance race at Churchill on May 21st prior to his nose defeat in the Winn. In the allowance win, he handily defeated the highly regarded Rattle N Roll, who went on after that race to win the American Derby at Churchill. Howling Time has the look of a solid value bet to at least hit the board in the Haskell.
Another Haskell runner who should always be respected is White Abarrio, from the barn of Saffie Joseph, Jr. He had an impossibly wide trip in the Kentucky Derby, resulting in his finishing 16th. Outside of that race, he has posted two wins: a second and a third in four graded stakes starts in his career. The wins were in the Holy Bull Stakes and the Florida Derby, both at Gulfstream. His stalking style and his ability to finish should work in his favor at Monmouth.
The other probable horse in the field is Benevengo, a New Jersey-based horse who has won 3 of 4 lifetime starts but will be making his first start in a graded stakes race.
The bottom line of this running of the Haskell is that it will be a test of the legitimacy of Jack Christopher. Given the dominance he has shown in his races, if he shows the ability to handle extra distance and two turns, the sky is the limit for the rest of his year. If not, he will probably be on a path to be one of the favorites in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in November at Keeneland. In either case, the Haskell will be a showcase for a horse who is undefeated and has not yet faced a solid challenge in his four career races.
One additional note: Most of us know that Rich Strike was the longest shot on the board at $80.80-1 when he won the Kentucky Derby. But what about the 2nd and 3rd longest horses in the odds for the Kentucky Derby? Tawny Port went off at $80.50-1, and he followed up his 7th place finish in the Derby with a win in the Ohio Derby. The 3rd longest horse on the board in the Derby was Classic Causeway, who went off at $78.90-1. He followed his 11th place finish in Louisville with a 3rd in the Ohio Derby. In his next start, however, trainer Ken McPeek put him on the grass for the first time in his career in the $1 million Belmont Derby. In a field that featured several top horses from Europe, Classic Causeway posted an upset at 26-1 odds. These performances by the three longest prices on the board in Louisville are some form of proof that there is a good reason why a race like the Derby is considered a Classic.
Watch the 2022 Haskell Stakes, a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series race for the Classic, on Saturday, July 23 from 5 to 6 p.m. ET on CNBC, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.