Even-money favorite Bluegrass Cat, winless since taking the Sam F. Davis in February, demolished the field in Sunday's $1,030,000 Haskell Invitational with devastating late burst before a Monmouth Park crowd of 42,318.
Racing three wide coming off the final turn in the 1 1/8-mile event for 3-year-olds, the WinStar Farm homebred Bluegrass Cat responded when given a couple of light taps with the right handed whip by John Velazquez. He widened his advantage with every stride in the final furlong under a vigorous hand ride to win by a Haskell record of seven lengths. The winning time was 1:48 4/5.
The pacesetter Praying for Cash, the colt with New Jersey connections owned in part by Bobby Hurley, was a clear second over Strong Contender, the second choice in the field of nine who was 1 1/4 lengths behind the runner-up.
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who picked up his first Haskell victory, said Bluegrass Cat could next run in the $1 million Travers (gr. I) Aug. 26 at Saratoga, where he would likely face the leading colt in the 3-year-old division Bernardini, winner of the Preakness (gr. I) and the Jim Dandy (gr. II).
"We only have 20 days to the Travers," Pletcher said, "which gives the horses who ran in the Jim Dandy an extra week on us. We'll let him tell us how he bounces out of this."
Velazquez had no doubts about Bluegrass Cat being ready.
"The way he ran today, I think he can beat anybody," Velazquez said. "I've always liked this horse. He always had a lot of potential."
Bluegrass Cat, a son of Storm Cat
--She's a Winner (A.P. Indy
) ran second in both the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and Belmont Stakes (gr. I) in his last two starts, but hadn't won since taking the non-graded Davis at Tampa Bay Downs.
Bluegrass Cat earned his first grade I win in the Haskell.
"It was a real breakthrough performance for him," said Pletcher, whose Ready's Gal won the Taylor Made Matchmaker (gr. IIIT) in the race preceding the Haskell. "We're delighted with his effort. His performance today is as good as any 3-year-old's this year. To win a grade one as significant as the Haskell puts him in the elite category as a racehorse and prospective sire."
Breaking from the outside, Bluegrass Cat raced wide throughout while forwardly placed in the group of three that stalked the lonely leader Praying for Cash, who was guided through smart fractions of :23 3/5, :47 2/5 and 1:11 4/5 by Joe Bravo. Bluegrass Cat shook off Electrify, Deputy Glitters and Flashy Bull on the far turn and challenged Praying for Cash, who was racing well off the rail, at the quarter pole. Bluegrass Cat accelerated through the stretch impressively without a challenge.
"We were able to get good position going down the backstretch," Velazquez said, "and he was pulling on me just waiting for me to ask him to run. When I called on him, that was it. He really just took off, went right by (Praying for Cash) turning for home. He did the whole thing really easily. It was a very impressive race from him."
Strong Contender, ridden by Edgar Prado, broke inward and was steadied between horses heading into the clubhouse turn. The Dwyer (gr. II) winner was five wide when he launched his late bid on the far turn and finished evenly.
Victory Lake took fourth, followed by Electrify, Awfully Smart, Flashy Bull, Deputy Glitters and Little Cliff.
Bluegrass Cat earned $600,000 for his fifth win in 10 starts and has now banked $1,561,280. The bay colt paid $4, $2.80 and $2.40 and combined with Praying for Cash ($5, $3) for a $40.60 exacta. Strong Contender was $2.60 to show.