With the Triple Crown races producing three different winners and the parity amongst the division continuing well into the summer, the race for 3-year-old champion has never been more wide open. Both Shackleford and Ruler On Ice will have a big chance to jump to the top of the class July 31 when they headline the $1 million Haskell Invitational (gr. I) at Monmouth Park.
The Haskell, along with the Aug. 27 Travers (gr. I) from Saratoga, will go a long way in determining the year-end honors, something that has not been lost upon trainers Dale Romans or Kelly Breen. Romans will send out Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner Shackleford in the Haskell, while the locally-based Breen will saddle Belmont Stakes (gr. I) victor Ruler On Ice, as well as two-time graded stakes winner Pants On Fire. Both trainers said they also plan to run their horses back in the Travers four weeks from now in hopes of securing a chance at an Eclipse Award, or two.
“It’s a grade I and it’s in our backyard,” Breen said in a national media teleconference July 26. “You have this grade I and then you have the Travers as a grade I. If there’s ever a chance in my lifetime to have a Horse of the Year…I’d rather have two shots than just one.”
“The races are going to decide it. I think (Kentucky Derby, gr. I winner) Animal Kingdom is a great horse. I think Shackleford is a great horse. I just hope my horses show up these next two races. These next two races are pivotal."
“I think we’re all even right now,” Romans said of the race for 3-year-old championship. “Animal Kingdom is up against it if one of us goes on and wins another grade I, especially either the Haskell or Travers. It’s unfortunate that he’s out for the year and won’t make these races. If Ruler On Ice or our horse wins (the Haskell) they have to be considered in the lead.”
Romans said that Shackleford, fourth in the Derby and fifth in the Belmont, remains in excellent form. He was given a short break at WinStar Farm after his Triple Crown run and came back to his barn at Churchill Downs full of energy. The son of Forestry turned in a pair of bullet works July 17 and July 24 and should be ready to fire another big effort in the 1 1/8-mile Haskell, which might be his preferred distance.
“He’s training as well as he ever has,” Romans said. “His last two works were pretty phenomenal. His last work he never moved a muscle, Tammy just sat on him, he did it on his own and was full of energy afterwards.
“He did run well going a mile and three-sixteenths (in the Preakness), but he’s probably best at a mile and an eighth.”
Shackleford, owned by Mike Lauffer and Bill Cubbedge, is 2-1-0 from six starts this year, including a runner-up effort in the Florida Derby (gr. I).
Breen trains both Ruler On Ice and Pants On Fire for George and Lori Hall, who are also from New Jersey. Ruler On Ice will make his first start since pulling a 24-1 upset in the June 11 Belmont Stakes. Pants On Fire returned from a ninth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby with an impressive two-length score in the June 18 Pegasus (gr. III) at Monmouth. He also won the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) in March. Elvis Trujillo will pick up the mount for injured regular rider Rosie Napravnik.
The horses worked in company July 24 at Monmouth, both clocking four furlongs in :47 3/5.
“The way they are training right now, it’s hard for me to decipher who is going to win the Haskell. They are both training that well,” Breen said.
“Pants On Fire is doing so well. I’m shocked that someone like Mike Watchmaker doesn’t have him in (the division leaders). He won the Louisiana Derby and came back after the Kentucky Derby to validate that he’s still a top horse to win a grade III at Monmouth Park. I don’t know, I’ve been calling him Rodney Dangerfield around the barn. No respect.
“The funny thing about Pants On Fire is that he is so laid back you wouldn’t think he’d be as precocious as he’s been acting lately. Around the barn he’s extremely laid back but when it’s time to run he wants to go.”
Breen said having Ruler On Ice on the pace like he was in the Belmont might have been exactly what the son of Roman Ruler needed. In previous starts, like the Sunland Park Derby (gr. III), he came from further back.
“Maybe he needed to be running a little closer,” Breen said.
“He needs another race to validate himself. You see a couple of these horses win the Belmont and they haven’t gone on to do anything else. I’d like to see him prove a point."