This year’s $1 million TVG.com Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park drew a field of seven, led by Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve runner-up Mandaloun and third-place finisher Hot Rod Charlie, both of whom have run well since then. Mandaloun won the Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth since the Derby while Hot Rod Charlie finished second in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, so both enter this Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series qualifying race for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic in top form.
Midnight Bourbon finished sixth in the Derby before a second-place finish in the Preakness Stakes, so he also fits the bill of a horse that has been competitive at the top level for 3-year-olds. Following Sea is the unknown factor in this Grade 1 race, having won his last two races by an average of six lengths and in powerful fashion, but he is racing in a stakes and running in a route race for the first time. Antigravity, Basso, and Pickin’ Time round out the field, the latter the only stakes winner among the three as he won the Grade 3 Nashua Stakes last November before three much poorer efforts.
Midnight Bourbon intrigues this handicapper in this year’s Haskell Stakes. Midnight Bourbon got the jump on many a Kentucky Derby contender when winning the Lecomte Stakes in January following three months off, easily beating Mandaloun by a length. Following that race, he finished third behind Mandaloun in the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford then second behind Hot Rod Charlie in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, a race in which Mandaloun checked in sixth. In the Kentucky Derby, Midnight Bourbon was bumped early and raced four wide on both turns but managed to rally from 12th to sixth at the end while his two Haskell foes each got much better trips. Returning two weeks later in the Preakness, which both the other two passed, Midnight Bourbon stalked the pacesetter in second before making the lead and opening up with an eighth of a mile to go before being caught by winner Rombauer. Still, Midnight Bourbon was two lengths clear of Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit and much farther ahead of the other seven horses. Considering his pedigree, it is no surprise Midnight Bourbon fits at the top level and two of his half-brothers (same dam) have had tremendous success at Monmouth. One of those is Pirate’s Punch, who won both the Iselin Stakes and Salvator Mile Stakes last year. More importantly, the other is 2017 Haskell winner Girvin, who earned more than $1.6 million in his career. With consistent Equibase Speed Figures going back to the Lecomte of 99, 95, 96, 99 and 98, it is conceivable Midnight Bourbon could be that much more mature with two months off and can turn the tables on both Hot Rod Charlie and Mandaloun to win this year’s Haskell Stakes.
Mandaloun really needs no talking up as his record of four wins, one second, and one third in seven career starts speaks for itself. Ignoring the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby in which he finished sixth and considering he rebounded nicely for second in the Kentucky Derby following that race, Mandaloun has showed up every time he has run. Following the Derby, Mandaloun was very game in securing a neck victory last month in the local prep for the Haskell, the Pegasus Stakes, and certainly familiarity with the track has its benefits. Having earned a 110 Equibase Speed Figure in the Kentucky Derby then following that up with a 109 figure in the Pegasus, Mandaloun should be expected to run another “A” race good enough to win in this race.
Hot Rod Charlie has a tremendous competitive spirit as evidenced by finishing no worse than third in all six dirt route races in his career, the last five of those graded stakes. After proving his runner-up effort at 94.40-1 odds in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance last fall was no fluke when winning the Louisiana Derby two races later this past March, the colt was third in the Kentucky Derby (109 figure) before his runner up effort in the Belmont Stakes (108 figure) last month. The one knock Hot Rod Charlie may have, however, is he doesn’t have any type of explosive kick. In the last quarter-mile of his past six races, he has not really passed a horse. For example, in the Derby he was third for the last part of the race and in the Belmont he was second for the last quarter-mile. Blinkers are removed for the Haskell which may help him find that added kick in the stretch when he sees his opponents better, and certainly Hot Rod Charlie has earned his place among the top 3-year-olds of 2021 and might make his mark in this year’s Haskell.
Honorable mention goes to Following Sea, who finished second in his debut in March (he was disqualified and placed third) before authoritatively winning his other two races. Earning a 110 Equibase Speed Figure competitive with the top contenders in this race while geared down to a 5 ¾-length win in April, in only the second start of his career, Following Sea won just as easily by 6 ½ lengths last month with a 105 speed-figure effort. Going from a sprint (6 ½ furlongs) to a 1 1/8-mile race is a tall order, but Following Sea is now in the hands of Todd Pletcher, so there is no question he is ready for this test. As to pedigree, sire Runhappy’s progeny have won 11 of 55 route races to date, though few have contested stakes. If not for the lack of experience in route races, Following Sea might have been my top choice to win this race.
The rest of the field (with best Equibase Speed Figure): Antigravity (97), Basso (82), and Pickin’ Time (91).
Hot Rod Charlie