For an hour Sunday, Saratoga won’t be “The Summer Place To Be.” Replacing it is Monmouth Park, where the 49th Haskell Invitational will reunite Nyquist and Exaggerator, the marquee names from the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
For the first time since 2010, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners will meet in the Grade I, $1-million showcase on the Jersey Shore. Joining them are Gun Runner, third in the Derby, and speedy late bloomer American Freedom, trained by Bob Baffert, owner of a record eight Haskell trophies. Completing the field are long shots Sunny Ridge and Awesome Slew.
NBC will show the 1 1/8-mile race live from 5-6 p.m., with post time at 5:47.
“For a six-horse field, it’s very deep,” said Doug O’Neill, who trains Nyquist (6-5 morning-line favorite, post 1). “He’s training great, but he’s going to need one of his best races to win.”
If he does, he’d be only the fourth Derby hero to do it, joining War Emblem (2002), Big Brown (2008) and American Pharoah (2015).
Although lacking the mainstream cachet of a Triple Crown event, the Haskell’s purse and prestige make it a destination. Monmouth CEO Bob Kulina is a bit biased, but it’s hard to disagree when he says this could be “one of the best Haskells ever.” (Fun factoid: It’s the first to draw the Derby’s first three finishers.)
Nyquist hasn’t raced since suffering his first defeat in nine starts in the Preakness. Shortly after finishing third in Pimlico’s slop behind Exaggerator, Nyquist spiked a fever. The brief illness canceled a rubber match in the Belmont Stakes with Exaggerator, who finished 11th there as the 7-5 favorite.
Exaggerator (5-2, post 6) was being pointed for Saratoga’s Jim Dandy, which (Laoban $56) won Saturday. A subpar workout last weekend convinced trainer Keith Desormeaux that he disliked the Spa’s surface, so in a surprise he rerouted him to Jersey for a sixth meeting with Nyquist.
Handicappers looking to knock off the classic winners will give a long look to American Freedom (3-1). He’ll be overbet because of the Baffert factor — he could become his sixth Haskell winner in seven years. The Hall of Famer’s favorite summer place is Del Mar, but Monmouth is a close second.
In April, there was a buzz that Baffert considered American Freedom his best 3-year-old, although he lacked the experience for the Derby. Baffert brought him to Churchill Downs for the Pat Day Mile on Derby Day, when he was bet down from a 6-1 morning line to 7-5. Many dollars came from quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his guests, a number of Packers teammates. They winced as American Freedom broke poorly, never reached contention and finished sixth.
“Yeah, the Packers were on him,’’ Jimmy Barnes, Baffert’s longtime assistant, said. “We’ve been quite high on American Freedom since we got him. I don’t know what happened at Churchill, but then he won at Pimlico, and the Iowa Derby was a pretty easy win.’’
Baffert is hopeful American Freedom can duplicate what Pharoah and Bayern did in the previous two Haskells. The major class jump is his main concern. “He’s ready now,’’ he said after a half-mile workout in 47 seconds at Del Mar. “Now we’ll find out if he’s good enough.”
Gun Runner (4-1) comes off a romp in Churchill’s Matt Winn. “With Nyquist, Gun Runner and American Freedom in there, Exaggerator just adds to the deck,’’ trainer Steve Asmussen said. “Gun Runner got a lot of confidence from the Matt Winn. I expect him to run the race of his life.”