Haskell: Horsemen discuss a “statement race”
Saturday’s Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park may tell us quite a bit about who the top three-year-olds are.
While none of the three Triple Crown race winners will be on hand, two horses that might be as talented as any – undefeated Jack Christopher and two-for-three Taiba – will be, along with two other Grade 1 winners and four more runners looking to break through.
Here’s what the connections are saying:
Onetime claimer-turned-Grade 1 runner Benevengo gives 28-year-old trainer Jesse Cruz, just weeks removed from his first stakes win, his first starter in a graded event.
Owned by Wasabi Ventures Stable, LLC, which claimed the Gormley colt out of his debut victory for $25,000, Benevengo is three-for-four in his career and was a troubled fourth in his only prior stakes try, in the Long Branch.
Benevengo is based at Monmouth Park and will have Angel Rodriguez up in the Haskell.
“The horse is doing super. We know we’re going to be a longshot. We’re stepping up from an other-than to Grade 1 and that’s a pretty big task, but the horse is doing well and he’s training well,” said Cruz, who gallops “Benny” himself. “We get to walk out of our own stall and walk over to the track he trains over every day to, hopefully, win a Grade 1 and one of the most historic races in the country.
Trainer Dale Romans has won approximately a bazillion graded stakes in his career – but never the Haskell.
He’s hoping Howling Time fills that blank on his resume. The son of Not This Time has won three of seven career starts, and while he didn’t win his last, that runner-up effort in the Grade 3 Matt Winn at Churchill Downs, might have been the best outing of his career.
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In that race, he and Cyberknife, who’s also entered in the Haskell, hooked up with more than a quarter-mile to go and slugged it out all the way to the wire, where Cyberknife prevailed by a nose. Importantly, the lead duo opened a six-length gap between themselves and show horse Rattle N Roll, with another eight lengths back to the rest.
“That last race was gutsy. He impressed me. They went nose to nose for a quarter mile. That was his best race he’s ever run. I’m not so sure he really lost. That was a good performance.” said Romans. “He’s on the ascent. He’s getting better all the time. If he brings his A game and steps up a little bit, he’ll be in the thick of it.”
Calling the Haskell a “statement race,” Romans added, “We could have gone in a lot of other directions, and taken a lot easier path, but the Haskell is the Haskell, and we want to play with the big boys.”
KING OF HOLLYWOOD
If experience counts for much, that’ll have to play into King of Hollywood’s hands, err… hooves. The Gregg Sacco trainee has made 13 starts to date, more than any of his rivals in the Haskell.
The bad news? He’s won only two of that baker’s dozen worth of starts, and one of those was in maiden claiming company. Last time out he finished seventh in the Pegasus, the final local Haskell prep.
Sacco said his charge came out of that contest “with both eyes closed shut,” so it’s fair to say King of Hollywood had an excuse. It’s also fair to say he’s facing a tall task here.
But, saying his runner has “a chance of picking up a piece,” Sacco has a clear idea of what the game plan will be for a horse who, at 30-1, is the longest shot on the board.
“This is a dynamite race. It’s packed with speed. We’re going to take back and see the field, and when the running starts see if we can grab a share.”
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One runner with some intriguing questions to answer is White Abarrio. The Saffie Joseph, Jr. trainee is one of the four Grade 1 winners in the field, but it’s still fair to wonder if he’s ready to be part of the top tier of sophomores.
White Abarrio, a son of Race Day, won four of his first five starts, topped by a win in the Grade 1 Florida Derby. That stamped him a candidate for roses in May.
But he was up the track in Louisville following a wide journey and bypassed the last two legs of the Triple Crown series. In his most recent start, he was second a length to Tawny Port in the Grade 3 Ohio Derby.
The water’s deeper here.
Joseph’s longtime assistant, Washonn Rochester, acknowledges the importance of the test.
“This is a very big race for him and the Haskell is a prestigious race. It is a really important race. It would be a feather in his cap if he wins,” he said. “It will show us and everyone where he is at this stage and in his class, and if he is going on to the next level.”