Trainer Bob Baffert firmly believes that Fog City Stable's Roman Ruler is one of the most gifted horses in the country. On Sunday, the colt will try to prove him right when he takes on seven opponents in Saturday's $1-million Haskell Invitational Handicap (gr. I).
The son of Fusaichi Pegasus
has already taken the first step in justifying his trainer's praise by coming off a 3 1/2-month layoff to win the 1 1/16-mile Dwyer Stakes (gr. II) over Flower Alley, who bounced back with an impressive victory in last Saturday's Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II).
But the Haskell will be his first big test around two turns in top company, and how he performs will determine whether Baffert continues to stretch him out in the Aug. 27 Travers Stakes (gr. I) or drops him back in distance in the seven-furlong King's Bishop Stakers (gr. I) on the same card. Roman Ruler has already won going two turns, winning last year's Norfolk Stakes (gr. II) against a moderate field.
With Roman Ruler's quarter crack problems behind him, all Baffert is looking for is a fast track and a clean trip to finally show off his colt's talents, which he believes can take him to the head of the 3-year-old division. Baffert had hoped a victory over division leader Afleet Alex in the Haskell would elevate Roman Ruler to star status, but that confrontation will have to wait now that Alex has been sidelined until the fall with a small hairline fracture.
That leaves Roman Ruler as the marquee name in the Haskell, and now he is the one with the target on his back. Although there are some talented 3-year-olds lining up to take him on, the 1 1/8-mile race is his to win or lose. He was installed as the 9-5 morning line favorite, and indicated his sharpness by working five furlongs in a snappy :58 3/5 at Del Mar on Monday.
He will break from post 4 in the Haskell and will have the services of Jerry Bailey, who rode the colt for the first time in the Dwyer.
Judging from his performance in the Dwyer, in which he circled the field with a powerful move, and then out-battled a talented graded stakes winner the length of the stretch, there is no reason why he shouldn't improve off that effort. "He's better now than he was before the Dwyer," Baffert said.
More important was the way he settled back in last in the six-horse field, but always looked as if he were in complete control of the race. With the Dwyer under him, it is going to take an exceptional performance to knock him off on Sunday.
That brings up the question, is there anyone capable of turning in such a performance? If there is one horse who has the credentials and the back class to beat Roman Ruler, it is Tracy Farmer's Sun King, impressive winner of the recent Leonard Richards Stakes (gr. III) at Delaware Park. The son of Charismatic was one of the early favorites for the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) following third-place finishes in last year's grade I Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Champagne Stakes, and a victory in this year's Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III).
Trainer Nick Zito believes he has Sun King back in top form and is looking to steal the thunder from Baffert, who has thrived in the Haskell, winning consecutive runnings with Point Given and War Emblem in 2001 and '02, respectively.
"Taking the spotlight away from Baffert is like taking a dog biscuit away from Lassie," Zito said.
Sun King, who wore blinkers for the first time in the Leonard Richards, will be ridden by Javier Castellano and will break from post 5.
One horse who is improving dramatically at the right time is Char-Mari Stable's Park Avenue Ball, who romped by mre than six lengths in the Long Branch Stakes (gr. III) over another Haskell starter, Chekhov. Horses who run well in the Long Branch often come back with a big effort in the Haskell.
Park Avenue Ball is stabled at Monmouth and should be dangerous in the Haskell, based on his recent form and his record of three victories from four starts at Monmouth. The son of Citidancer
is trained by Jim Ryerson, who conditioned Unbridled's Song and finished second to Holy Bull in the '94 Haskell with Meadow Flight. Park Avenue Ball will be ridden by Chris DeCarlo, who won the 1986 Haskell aboard Wise Times when he was only 17.
Also bringing in solid stakes credentials is Palladio, winner of the Ohio Derby (gr. II) and Victoria Stakes at his home track of Woodbine. The son of Lycius
has won three of his last four starts for trainer Roger Attfield. He will break from the rail with Richard dos Ramos aboard.
The most intriguing horse in the race is the Rick Dutrow-trained Golden Man, who raised eyebrows by finishing third in the Long Branch and second in the Leonard Richards on consecutive days. Anything Dutrow sends out is dangerous, and Golden Man has to be given an outside chance.
The horse who no doubt will dictate the pace will be the locally based speedster Joey P., who is undefeated in sprints, but tired slightly in his first attempt at two turns in a recent allowance race. This is a horse with talent, and it will be interesting to see how far he can take this field. He'll have Aaron Gryder in the saddle and will break from post 7.
Finally, there are two horses who have the potential to be live longshots. The aforementioned Chekhov has not lived up to his promise, but he has shown flashes of brilliance and has demonstrated a pushbutton acceleration. If he finally can put it all together, he can make his presence felt, as long as the track is playing fair. His trainer, Patrick Biancone, won last year's Haskell with Lion Heart.
Papi Chullo has only a maiden victory to his credit, but finished a strong second in the Sham Stakes as a maiden, finishing ahead of subsequent Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo, and was a solid fourth in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) behind High Fly. In his recent maiden score at Belmont, he overcame a six-length deficit at the eighth pole to win by three-quarters, coming home his final quarter in :24 2/5. He should be longer than his 15-1 morning line odds and would be the longshot pick, especially to fill out the exotics.
PP/Horse/Trainer/Jockey/Morning Line Odds
1 -- Palladio; Roger Attfield; Richard Dos Ramos;10-1
2 -- Park Avenue Ball; Jim Ryerson; Chris DeCarlo; 3-1
3 -- Papi Chullo; Sal Gonzalez; David Lopez; 15-1
4 -- Roman Ruler; Bob Baffert; Jerry Bailey; 9-5
5 -- Sun King; Nick Zito; Javier Castellano; 5-2
6 -- Golden Man; Richard Dutrow; Chuck Lopez; 15-1
7 -- Joey P; Frank Costa; Aaron Gryder; 15-1
8 -- Chekhov; Patrick Biancone; Gary Stevens; 6-1