If any 3-year-old is going to head to the Aug. 26 Travers Stakes (gr. I) with a legitimate shot to knock off the Bernardini, he will have to show what he's made of in Sunday's $1-million Haskell Invitational (gr. I) at Monmouth Park.
WinStar Farm's Bluegrass Cat will bring Triple Crown experience, coming off second-place finishes in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and Belmont Stakes (gr. I). The hot-blooded son of Storm Cat
drew the outside post in the field of nine, and will have regular rider John Velazquez in the saddle. He was installed as the 2-1 morning line favorite.
John Oxley's Strong Contender, coming off a 7 3/4-length romp in the Dwyer Stakes (gr. II), can regain the lofty reputation he had early in the year with another smashing victory on Sunday. Trained by John Ward Jr., who finished second to Bernardini in last Saturday's Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) with Minister's Bid, has always held Strong Contender in high regard, and he is looking for another big effort to set him up for a showdown with Bernardini in the Travers. Edgar Prado again will be aboard and will break from post 3 as the second choice on the morning line at 5-2.
But the Haskell is far from a two-horse race. Joseph Lacombe's Deputy Glitters, a stablemate of Bernardini, is coming off a gutsy victory in the Ohio Derby I (gr. II); Awfully Smart, stabled with trainer Alan Goldberg at nearby Colt's Neck Stables, was impressive winning the Leonard Richards Stakes (gr. III) at Delaware Park in his last start; and locally based Praying for Cash, from the barn of Kelly Breen, upset Latent Heat in the Monmouth's Long Branch Stakes (gr. III) in his last start.
Breaking from the rail will be the hard-knocking Flashy Bull, who has placed in several top-class stakes, and was a good third in the Ohio Derby after getting shuffled back early. He has been training brilliantly for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, and the West Point Stable-owned colt could be sitting on a huge effort.
Rounding out the field are Electrify, a multiple stakes winner at Calder who just missed in the Spend a Buck Stakes at Monmouth; Little Cliff, third in the Leonard Richards; and Awfully Smart's stablemate Victory Lake, third in the Long Branch.
The 39th running of the Haskell, sponsored this year by Vonage, will go as the 12th race on the program, which features seven other stakes, and will have a 5:45 post.
Elliott Walden, racing manager for WinStar, said Bluegrass Cat has progressed well since the Belmont, and shouldn't be hampered by the outside post.
"I'm not concerned about the post position," said Walden, who saddled Menifee to win the Haskell in 1999. "He's such a tactical horse, a lot like Menifee in that respect, so the post is not a major concern."
Walden said participating in the Haskell draw was like old times for him.
"Winning the Haskell was one of my fondest memories," he said. "It was probably the best week of my training career. Ecton Park won the Jim Dandy and Menifee won the Haskell the same day, and Victory Gallop won the Whitney the week before."
Ward couldn't be happier with Strong Contender's post. "It's a perfect draw for us," he said. "It puts us close to the fence, and this horse has lick when you want it. It gives Edgar a chance to see what's happening and to choose his tactics. He knows him so well, and that's a plus for us."
Strong Contender missed the Triple Crown events, which may have been to his advantage, Ward said.
"He's a May 15 foal, and we've picked his spots so far," Ward said. "He's coming up to this race as good as we can get him. Now he'll show us whether he's got the talent to compete in grade I company."
Praying for Cash is the main local hope, and Breen said the Haskell is a very special race to him, his owners, and his jockey.
"This is our Kentucky Derby," said Breen. "Everybody connected with this horse is from New Jersey, so this is the race we'd all love to win."
Tom Albertrani, who trains Deputy Glitters, said he was fine with Post 7.
"He's got some early speed," the trainer said, "and he should be running into that first turn to get position."
Albertrani noted Deputy Glitters put in a big effort to win the Ohio Derby last out, and is the only horse in the field to win at the Haskell distance of 1 1/8 mile.
Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Flashy Bull, said that the inside post works for his horse, a son of 1994 Haskell winner Holy Bull
. "I like the post," McLaughlin said. "It's much better to be on the rail here than out in eight or nine. He's got enough speed to leave, and we might have to send him."
Flashy Bull was 14th in the Kentucky Derby, when he started from Post 20, and last out finished third behind Deputy Glitters in the Ohio Derby.
"He's run very well in most of his races," McLaughlin. "Now we hope we get lucky on Sunday."
1--Flashy Bull Kiaran McLaughlin Jose Santos 5-1
2--Awfully Smart Alan Goldberg Ramon Domingiez 10-1
3--Strong Contender John Ward Edgar Prado 5-2
4--Little Cliff Nick Zito Jose Lezcano 20-1
5--Praying for Cash Kelly Breen Joe Bravo 8-1
6--Victory Lake Alan Goldberg Eddie Castro 30-1
7--Deputy Glitters Tom Albertrani Rene Douglas 4-1
8--Electrify Eddie Plesa Abel Castellano 10-1
9--Bluegrass Cat Todd Pletcher John Velazquez 2-1