With Afleet Alex on the bench, Fog City Stable's Roman Ruler finally reigns over the national 3-year-old division. The injury-plagued 'Ruler, who missed this year's Triple Crown with foot problems, realized his potential Sunday by capturing the $1 million Haskell Invitational Handicap (gr. I) at Monmouth Park impressively.With Jerry Bailey aboard, the son of Fusaichi Pegasus overcame a four-wide trip for much of the 1 1/8-mile journey, edging away from the pacesetting Sun King in the final 70 yards after taking control at the eighth pole. Going over the $1 million mark in career earnings, he won by 1 1/4 lengths in a final time of 1:49 4/5. Both Sun King and Roman Ruler carried top weight of 119 pounds.Trainer Bob Baffert won the Haskell for the third time in five years. He said afterward that this was the most rewarding. Baffert, who won the Haskell in 2001 with Point Given and the 2003 edition with War Emblem, tied Sonny Hine and Jimmy Croll for the most wins in Monmouth's most prestigious race."As a trainer, you live from one big horse to the next," he said. "It's not about the grade Is. It's about Roman Ruler proving to everyone he's got the goods. This was the most gratifying of the three.
"This race was a big test to see if he could get a mile and an eighth the right way. He's gotten back to where he was as a 2-year-old. "
And that means he should be a major threat in the Travers (gr. I) at Saratoga on Aug. 27, with the Breeders' Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (gr. I) at Belmont on Oct. 29 the ultimate goal.
"I'd like to run in the Travers," Baffert said. "I was hoping he would step up today. He's got a great style now. He's got a great burst of speed. It was tough to get him here. But I think we've got a good thing lined up."Baffert and Roman Ruler, winning for the first time around two turns, helped make up for the lost luster resulting when Preakness and Belmont Stakes (both gr. I) winner Afleet Alex fractured his left front ankle. On a hot, muggy and sometimes rainy day, a crowd of 43,769 watched Sun King shoot to the lead.
Roman Ruler stalked the leaders as Sun King and Javier Castellano carved the pace on the inside, going :23 2/5, :47 3/5 and 1:11 3/5. Trailing by a couple of lengths coming into the far turn, Bailey increased the pressure while three wide on the outside of Sun King and Joey P. as the New Jersey-bred Park Avenue Ball fell back a bit at the rail under Chris DeCarlo.Bailey and Roman Ruler continued to press as Joey P. threw in the towel at the top of the stretch. The two contenders were soon even as Sun King proved stubborn a furlong out, but Roman Ruler would not be denied.Trainer Nick Zito, who saddled Sun King, was hoping to duplicate his front-running win with Commentator in Saturday's Whitney Handicap (gr. I) at Saratoga.The stretch battle was much like Roman Ruler's last start in Belmont Park's Dwyer (gr. II) July 4 when Bailey, riding the colt for the first time, surged past Flower Alley in mid-stretch but had to keep working to hold the lead."The funny thing is he acts like he could win by 10, but he only wants to win by a couple," Bailey told a national television audience. "That could be a good thing (for the future)."Park Avenue Ball finished a game third, 3 1/4 lengths behind Roman Ruler, while Chekhov got into gear late to finish fourth.A $500,000 Keeneland buy in September 2003, Roman Ruler is the last horse that will run for the current 17-year-old partnership of Fog City Stable. Part-owner William Bianco has formed a partnership, Sunset Stables, with his children in California while David Shimmon will continue with Fog City and a new group of investors. The colt won a pair of grade II races in Southern California last year before running fifth as the favorite in the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I). A problem quarter crack plagued Roman Ruler's 3-year-old campaign, and he was taken out of training following a 27 1/2-length loss in the San Felipe (gr. II) at Santa Anita in March. He returned with a superb effort in the Dwyer July 4, defeating the recent Jim Dandy (gr. II) winner Flower Alley by a half-length."Point Given was a beast and War Emblem had to have the lead," Baffert said. "This horse is learning from every race. He's picking up at a good time of the year with the Breeders' Cup around the corner." The $600,000 winner's share increased the Kentucky-bred's earnings to $1,020,800. He has won five of his eight starts.The 6-5 favorite, Roman Ruler paid $4.20, $3, and $2.40. Sun King, who was coming off a 5 3/4-length win in the Leonard Richards Stakes (gr. III) at Delaware Park July 17, returned $4 and $3 in a game effort. Park Avenue Ball, the second choice in the field of seven after winning Monmouth's Long Branch Breeders' Cup (gr. III) July 16, also turned in a strong effort and paid $2.60.Chekhov was followed home by Palladio, Papi Chullo, and Joey P. Golden Man scratched.(Chart, Equibase)