The Grade 1, $1 million TVG.com Haskell Invitational Stakes features Maximum Security, the first-place finisher of the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve before being disqualified and winner of the Grade 1 Xpressbet Florida Derby prior to that. Certainly the leader of the field in terms of class, Maximum Security disappointed as the prohibitive favorite most recently in the Pegasus Stakes and attempts to get back on track with his second Grade 1 stakes win of the year. Six others were entered to deny him that opportunity, including Mucho Gusto, recent winner of the Grade 3 Affirmed Stakes. Mucho Gusto is trained by Bob Baffert, winner of the Haskell eight times since 2000 including five of six times between 2010 and 2015. King for a Day was the one who posted the upset over Maximum Security in the Pegasus and will attempt to prove that win was no fluke. Joevia led for nearly the entire 1 ½ miles in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets last month and was beaten by less than a length for second in a game effort. Joevia previously won the Long Branch Stakes on the main track at Monmouth Park. Everfast proved he belongs at the level when rallying from 11th and 22 lengths back to finish second in the Grade 1 Preakness Stakes before a seventh-place effort in the Belmont. Bethlehem Road won the first three starts of his career, including the Parx Spring Derby in May, but in his most recent race was beaten by more than 20 lengths in the Grade 3 Ohio Derby. Spun to Run, who races in a stakes for the first time, rounds out the field.
Overview: The first sentence to cross my mind when looking at the past performances of this year’s Haskell Invitational Stakes field was “What horses are going to take back off the pace?” That is because Joevia, Bethlehem Road, and Maximum Security have earned all their wins in two-turn races when leading from the start. King for a Day has been no farther back than second in the early stages of his route wins, as has Spun to Run, and Mucho Gusto had been first or second after a half-mile in three of four route races and although fourth was just three-quarters of a length behind the leader in his most recent race. Strategies discussed between trainers and jockeys will be of the utmost importance, but no matter the strategy there is only so much a jockey can do when an 1,100-pound horse wants to go for the lead and so I feel there is no avoiding the likelihood at the minimum Joevia, Bethlehem Road, and Maximum Security will want the lead and potentially go faster than average, giving the advantage to the others who can relax a couple of lengths or more off the pace. The exception to that scenario is Everfast, who is highly likely to be last of the seven for the first half-mile.
With that in mind, King for a Day appears capable of proving his win over Maximum Security last month in the Pegasus Stakes was no fluke. Having returned from nearly six months off in mid-May, King for a Day won the Sir Barton Stakes pretty easily by 2 1/2 lengths. In spite of the time off and having no prep race, King for a Day earned a career-best 100 Equibase Speed Figure in the process. Four weeks later in the Pegasus, King for a Day improved to a new career-best 107 figure while showing a lot of maturity sitting about a half-length behind Maximum Security for the first seven furlongs before engaging and drawing off to win by a length. I really like the “third-off-the-layoff” pattern for further improvement, and considering that 107 figure is the best last-race figure in the field, unless another horse improves significantly off their most recent race, King for a Day is the one to beat in this year’s Haskell.
Everfast gets a dream pace scenario for his late kick because it will only take two or three horses all bent on having the early lead to go much faster than average from the start. Recalling trainer Dale Romans saddled a similar closer, Keen Ice, to post the upset over American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers Stakes, an upset by Everfast would be another feather in the trainer’s cap. Everfast has run well enough on two occasions this year to post the upset in this race. The first of those two came when he finished second in the Fasig-Tipton Holy Bull Stakes in February, earning a 102 speed figure. The second came in the Preakness in May when Everfast rallied from 22 lengths back after a half-mile to get second behind War of Will. Following the Preakness, Everfast found the 1 ½-mile distance of the Belmont Stakes too far as he ran evenly throughout in terms of lengths behind the leader, never mounting a rally. However, on the cut back to 1 1/8 miles and with a hot pace to set up his late kick, Everfast could be passing most if not all of the field in the late stages of this race.
Mucho Gusto is not without a chance in the Haskell. Not only is he trained by Bob Baffert, winner of eight of the last 18 editions of this race, but he’s also an improving colt who won the Affirmed Stakes last month with a 105 speed figure. That figure was a strong improvement off the 99-figure effort the colt put forth one month earlier when winning the Lazaro Barrera Stakes around one turn. Mucho Gusto earned a career-best 106 figure winning the Robert B. Lewis Stakes in February and may exceed that effort in the Haskell. In the Affirmed, Mucho Gusto relaxed in fourth in the early stages, about 1 1/2 lengths off the leader. If he is able to do the same thing in this race, Mucho Gusto may be right behind probable pace-presser King for a Day when the real running starts at the head of the stretch, making for a very exciting finish to the race.
I can’t leave out Maximum Security as a contender, but it sure does appear the pace scenario is not in his favor. A colt with tremendous natural early speed, Maximum Security won the Florida Derby while running strongly on the lead from start to finish, earning a 102 figure in the process. Crossing the line in front in the Kentucky Derby five weeks later (before being disqualified), Maximum Security improved to a 111 figure, which is the best in the field. Returning in the Pegasus Stakes last month, Maximum Security once again showed his early speed, but could not hold off King for a Day when challenged in the stretch. Certainly, if he improves off the Pegasus and is allowed to cruise to the lead without much pressure, Maximum Security can rebound to win the Haskell. However, believing the only way others in the field such as Joevia and Bethlehem Road can win is if they lead from the start as well, it may be difficult for Maximum Security to get the early lead he appears to need for a winning effort.
The rest of the Haskell field (with best representative Equibase Speed Figures): Bethlehem Road (100), Joevia (102) and Spun to Run (99).
King for a Day