Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Haskell Stakes an Important Classic Prep

After a two-week break, the Road to the Breeders’ Cup resumes on Saturday, July 17, with a significant prep at the Jersey Shore anchoring the weekend’s stakes activity that also includes opening weekend slates at Saratoga Race Course and Del Mar. 

The $1 million, Grade 1 TVG.com Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park is annually a key event in determining standings in the 3-year-old male division, and this year’s 54th Haskell offers a fees-paid automatic berth to the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic Nov. 6 at Del Mar as it’s part of the “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series Presented by America’s Best Racing.

The Haskell will be broadcast nationally on NBC as part of an hour-long show beginning at 5 p.m. ET on Saturday. 

Here’s some background on the Haskell and several other stakes races on tap this weekend that have been historically important on the road to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships:

TVG.com Haskell Stakes

As a race restricted to 3-year-olds, the Haskell Invitational has not had a year-in, year-out impact on the Breeders’ Cup Classic since the World Championships began in 1984, but in certain years – especially when a strong crop of sophomores emerges – the Haskell has been a key prep race. In 1988, Haskell winner Forty Niner finished fourth in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, but runner-up Seeking the Gold made a bigger splash, fighting valiantly in deep stretch before yielding to eventual Horse of the Year Alysheba in the final strides to finish second. Serena’s Song became the first filly to win the Haskell in 1995; she competed in the ’95 and ’96 Breeders’ Cup Distaffs, finishing second in the latter year. Another eventual Hall of Famer, Skip Away, won the 1996 Haskell en route to champion 3-year-old male honors, and then romped in the 1997 Breeders’ Cup Classic to win another championship, this time as champion older male. He then went on to earn Horse of the Year and champion older male honors in 1998.

In 1999, Haskell runner-up Cat Thief posted a 19.60-1 upset in the Breeders’ Cup Classic under Pat Day, but after that, there was little crossover of note between the two races until 2007. That year was a banner one for 3-year-olds racing on dirt, and the top three finishers in the Haskell Invitational all started in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which was held at the home of the Haskell, Monmouth Park. By that point, Curlin had emerged from his third-place effort in the Haskell to become the dominant racehorse in his class, and he validated that reputation with a 4 ½-length romp in the Classic. Haskell runner-up Hard Spun settled for second again in the Classic, while Haskell winner Any Given Saturday was sixth.

More recently, the Haskell’s profile has been elevated as a Breeders’ Cup Classic prep race (it became part of the Challenge Series in 2015). In 2014, Bayern, the seventh of Bob Baffert’s record nine Haskell winners, scored a front-running upset in the Classic at Santa Anita Park that survived a steward’s inquiry. And one year later, Baffert-trained Triple Crown winner American Pharoah easily won the Haskell, suffered a shocking upset in the Travers Stakes, and then returned to achieve Grand Slam glory by closing out his career with a blowout Breeders’ Cup Classic win at Keeneland.

The 2018 Haskell runner-up, Bravazo, did not compete in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs but did run a solid third in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. That year’s Haskell winner, Good Magic was the 2-year-old champion male of 2017 due to his win in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but he only raced once more as a 3-year-old after the Haskell before he was retired. Spun to Run, third to Maximum Security in the 2019 Haskell at 34.60-1 odds, trained on to win the Big Ass Fans Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita Park.

Last year’s Haskell turned out to be a very significant race in determining the final standings of the 3-year-old division as well as the Breeders’ Cup in a year where both were affected (along with the rest of horse racing and society at large) by the coronavirus pandemic.

Bob Baffert-trained Authentic had emerged as a leading 3-year-old with wins in the Sham and San Felipe Stakes and a runner-up effort in the postponed Runhappy Santa Anita Derby in June. The Haskell was held at its regular mid-July date and designated as a qualifying race for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on “the first Saturday in September,” and Authentic was heavily favored at 3-5 odds. He set a modest pace in the Haskell under Mike Smith but had to fend off a stout challenge from Ny Traffic through the stretch, winning by a nose.

By Derby time, Authentic was somewhat overlooked by bettors based on his slim Haskell victory and the dominance displayed by New York-based Tiz the Law, but as it turned out the Haskell was just what Authentic needed to reach his best form. Authentic won the Derby on the front end by 1 ¼ lengths over Tiz the Law. Following that, Authentic just missed in the Preakness Stakes, losing to the filly Swiss Skydiver by a neck in a thriller, and then shipped to Keeneland for a start in the Longines Classic against a loaded field that included 2019 Haskell victor Maximum Security, Tiz the Law, and several other top-class horses.

Under John Velazquez, Authentic controlled the early pace as he had in the Kentucky Derby and had more than enough stamina to hold off stablemate Improbable for a 2 ¼-length win in the Longines Classic. Having captured arguably the two most prestigious races in North America, Authentic was an easy choice to be voted champion 3-year-old male and Horse of the Year at the Eclipse Awards.  

This year’s Haskell could end up just as important as 2020’s race, as several top 3-year-old contenders are slated to square off on Saturday, led by Belmont Stakes runner-up Hot Rod Charlie, Kentucky Derby runner-up Mandaloun, and Preakness Stakes runner-up Midnight Bourbon.

Other weekend stakes:

Despite not being a Challenge Series race, the Grade 1 Diana Stakes, to be held Saturday at Saratoga, has had major crossover with the Breeders’ Cup World Championships over the past couple of decades, primarily the Maker’s Mark Filly and Mare Turf.

In 2000, Stronach Stables’ Perfect Sting captured Diana and, after a runner-up finish at Keeneland, took the Filly and Mare Turf by three-quarters of a length at Churchill Downs. She was voted champion turf female at the Eclipse Awards. A year later, French-bred Starine won the Diana by a dominant 5 ¼ lengths for owner and trainer Bobby Frankel. She finished a disappointing 10th in the Filly and Mare Turf that fall but came back to win the race in 2002 at Arlington International Racecourse.

2004 Diana winner Wonder Again finished third in that fall’s Filly and Mare Turf to superstar Ouija Board, and in 2008 and 2009 Forever Together used back-to-back wins in the Diana as springboards to success in the World Championships. The beautiful gray Jonathan Sheppard trainee won the 2008 Filly and Mare Turf and earned champion turf female honors at the Eclipse Awards, and then finished third a year later to Midday. Julien Leparoux was aboard for all four of those races.

In 2010, Graham Motion-trained Shared Account just missed in the Diana, losing by a head to Proviso, but that mare’s fast-closing style would prove to be beneficial two starts later at Churchill Downs, when she rallied to post a 46-1 upset win. Zagora took the 2011 Diana and, like Starine, came back a year later to win the Filly and Mare Turf; her 2012 Breeders’ Cup win was the second World Championships victory for an up-and-coming trainer named Chad Brown, a protégé of the late Bobby Frankel who would soon be recognized as the best turf conditioner in North America.

Stephanie’s Kitten, one of the best turf mares of the 2010s, finished second in the 2014 Diana by a neck and also second that fall in the Filly and Mare Turf, but won the 2015 Filly and Mare Turf at Keeneland to close out a career that also included a win in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. And in 2015, another superstar grass mare took a tough loss in the Diana before going on to greater success in the Breeders’ Cup. Mark Casse-trained Tepin came up a nose short behind fellow closer Hard Not to Like at Saratoga but found her best form starting that fall, reeling off eight straight victories that included a score in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Keeneland and a win at Royal Ascot. Tepin would also finish second in the 2016 Mile, her final start, and receive Eclipse Awards as champion turf female for both years.

Lady Eli, who won the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, came back after a year’s absence due to laminitis and became a fan favorite from 2016-’17, finishing second by a nose to Queen’s Trust in the 2016 Filly and Mare Turf and winning the 2017 Diana by a head. And in 2018 and 2019, another fast-closing mare from Chad Brown’s barn took back-to-back Dianas and also the 2018 Filly and Mare Turf while finishing third in 2019. Her name? Sistercharlie.

Brown enters 2021 having won the Diana five years in a row. Last year’s score came with Rushing Fall. The e Five Racing Thoroughbreds-owned mare had already won the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf at Keeneland during her juvenile season (the first of five wins at the Central Kentucky track) and in 2019 she finished second to stablemate Sistercharlie in the Diana. She took the 2020 Diana by a neck over a game Mean Mary and did not make another start until the Filly and Mare Turf at Keeneland in November, where she took the lead in midstretch but could not hold off European invader Audarya and lost by a neck in what turned out to be her final career start.

At Del Mar, the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap has been won by several accomplished and famous horses through the years (and has had also-rans such as Breeders’ Cup winners Pleasantly Perfect and Bayakoa), and through the years it has become an increasingly important race on the road to the Breeders’ Cup as the main prep for the Grade 1 TVG Pacific Classic at Del Mar in August.

The first San Diego winner to make noise at the World Championships came early. Skywalker, a son of Relaunch based in California, won the San Diego in summer 1986 and three starts later at Santa Anita upset the Classic at odds of 10.10-1 under Laffit Pincay Jr., defeating the top two betting choices, Turkoman and Precisionist.

Jump ahead 24 years, and Dakota Phone took the 2010 San Diego and then won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Churchill Downs in a 37.70-1 upset three starts later (also of note: Taste of Paradise, winner of the ’03 San Diego, nearly won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint two years later, losing by a head).

Rail Trip won the San Diego in 2012 and finished second in the Dirt Mile, and the race’s stature has continued to grow larger in recent years. The great California Chrome won the San Diego Handicap in 2016 prior to his five-length runaway in the Pacific Classic, and he was favored in the Breeders’ Cup Classic that year only to lose to another superstar, Arrogate. In 2017, Accelerate upset Arrogate in the San Diego but finished ninth in the Dirt Mile that fall and did not reach champion-level form until 2018, when he won five Grade 1 stakes, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. 

The United Nations Stakes, a prestigious Grade 1 race on turf at Monmouth Park usually held in late June/early July, is scheduled on the July 17 Haskell undercard this year. The 1 3/8-mile race has been won by some of the most accomplished grass horses in North America through the years, including Breeders’ Cup winners Manila (1986 and ’87 United Nations, 1986 Turf), Steinlen (1989 Mile, 1990 United Nations), Lure (1992 and ’93 Mile, 1994 United Nations), Better Talk Now (2004 Turf, 2005 United Nations), English Channel (2006 and ’07 United Nations, 2007 Turf), Main Sequence (2014 United Nations and 2014 Turf), and World Approval (2016 United Nations, 2017 Mile).

Other stakes this weekend with recent influence on the Breeders’ Cup include the Molly Pitcher Stakes at Monmouth, won back-to-back in 2007 and ’08 by Hystericalady, who just missed winning the ’07 Distaff at the same track, and won by eventual Distaff runner-up and Midnight Bisou in 2019; and the Monmouth Cup Stakes, won in 2017 by Sharp Azteca, the eventual runner-up in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

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