This year’s Grade 1, $1 million TVG.com Haskell Stakes drew a field of eight, led by Jack Christopher, who is undefeated and untested in four races, including the Grade 1 Woody Stephens Stakes Presented by Mohegan Sun in June. Cyberknife has been a horse to be reckoned with in the 3-year-old division, having won the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby in April and most recently victorious in the Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes on the same weekend as the Woody Stephens. Taiba, who after winning the Grade 1 Runhappy Santa Anita Derby in April, was so highly regarded he was sent to post as the second betting choice in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, returns to the races for his first start since he finished a badly beaten 12th in that race. White Abarrio adds more depth to the field after rebounding off a 16th-place Derby effort to finish second in the Grade 3 Ohio Derby at the end of June. Howling Time gave Cyberknife all he could handle when coming up a nose shy of winning the Matt Winn and is yet another worthy of calling “win contender.” The other three entrants – Benevengo, King of Hollywood, and One Time Willard, have a combined record of 0-for-5 in stakes races and appear to be overmatched in this “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series race for the $6-million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Analysis and top contenders:
In the Matt Winn Stakes on June 12, Howling Time led from the start on sensible fractions, then was engaged by Cyberknife with a quarter-mile to run. From that point to the finish line, they were involved in a pitched battle, with Cyberknife prevailing by a nose. Both colts earned 104 Equibase Speed Figures for that effort, which compares favorably with the 106 figure White Abarrio earned when second in the Ohio Derby. Jack Christopher earned the highest figure in this field, 108, when winning the Woody Stephens Stakes in June, but for reasons mentioned later may be hard-pressed to repeat that effort. Howling Time is on a four-race pattern of improving figures, starting with 56 in his 3-year-old debut in March, to 77, then to 91 in May, and finally the 104 figure earned in the Matt Winn. Third-place Matt Winn finisher Rattle N Roll flattered both Howling Time and Cyberknife when winning the American Derby on July 2 and improving six points, which suggests both Howling Time and Cyberknife could run fast enough to earn 110 figures here. Considering Howling Time opens at slightly higher odds (10-1) compared with Cyberknife (6-1), I’ll give slight preference to Howling Time as the better bet in this year’s Haskell Stakes.
Cyberknife came onto the 3-year-old scene in a big way in February when winning at the slightly shorter 1 1/16-mile distance but earning a graded stakes quality 100 speed figure. Showing that to be no fluke, he next won the Arkansas Derby with a slightly lower figure (95) but perhaps could have run faster as he coasted to a 2 ¾-length win. Following a noncompetitive 18th-place effort in the Kentucky Derby, Cyberknife resurfaced five weeks later and was exceptionally game when beating Howling Time by a nose and earning a career-best 104 Equibase Speed Figure in the process. With the ground-saving rail starting spot for the Haskell, regular jockey Florent Geroux will have the ability to put the talented colt on the lead from the start. Or, if Howling Time wants the early lead as he did in the Matt Winn, Geroux can stalk in second as he did that day, setting up another stirring battle to the finish line.
White Abarrio actually ran a bit faster in his most recent race than the top pair, earning a 106 speed figure when second (beaten a length) in the Ohio Derby. Whereas the Matt Winn was run at 1 1/16 miles, the Ohio Derby was run at the 1 1/8-mile distance of the Haskell, the same distance White Abarrio won at when victorious in the Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa this spring. Like Cyberknife, White Abarrio has exceptional tactical speed, having won when fifth early in the Florida Derby and when second early in the Holy Bull Stakes prior to that. As such, White Abarrio is a strong contender in this race as well, and his starting odds of 5-1 appear to be high enough compared with his probability to win, so he, too, should be considered worthy of a win bet.
About the favorites that I am taking a stand against in this race: although both Jack Christopher and Taiba have run fast enough to win, having earned 108 and 102 figures, respectively, I don’t think either can beat any of the three main contenders if those horses run as expected.
Jack Christopher was 2-for-2 last year and has the same record this year, improving to a career-best 108 figure with his 10-length win in the Woody Stephens Stakes in June. However, all four of his wins have been around one turn and he is giving up experience to many others in this race. Additionally, he just isn’t bred to run as well at this distance as he has at shorter trips. A Stats Race Lens query reveals his sire, Munnings, has had 11 different horses make a total of 25 starts in stakes race at all levels at this 1 1/8-mile distance, and none of those horses won. One of those is Bonny South, is entered in the Molly Pitcher Stakes two races earlier on the Haskell card. Although having earned $1 million and winning or placing in 11-of-16 races, she is 0-for-5 (with four seconds and one third-place finish) at the distance. Jack Christopher’s dam, Rushin No Blushin, only ran one time in a two-turn race, finishing 12th. Those are good reasons in my opinion to take a stand against Jack Christopher in this race. As for Taiba, I did not like his chances in the Kentucky Derby in spite of his big win in the Santa Anita Derby, owing to his lack of experience. He had just run two times previous to the Derby, winning in a four-horse field in his debut and a six-horse field in the Santa Anita Derby. Although the 102 figures in those two efforts would have been competitive in the Kentucky Derby field if repeated, it was unlikely he could repeat those races against 19 other horses, particularly with many having more experience. Now he has an additional problem, having been off for more time than any other horse in the field. There is no guarantee Taiba can run back to his best effort off the layoff against much more seasoned competition, particularly as there are four other horses in the Haskell field that have run faster than he has to date.
The rest of the field (with best Equibase Speed Figure): Benevengo (99), King of Hollywood (90), and One Time Willard (85).