There are no weak links. Not obvious ones, anyway.
Each of the seven entrants for the July 30 Betfair.com Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1) can make the claim of being a graded stakes winner. Five are coming off victories in their most recent starts and of the two that were bested last time out, one was beaten a total of about a inch and the other hit the wire second in the most grueling of Triple Crown tests.
Someone had to be made the favorite of the group, and the 5-2 morning-line honor went to hometown boy Irish War Cry, the New Jersey-bred colt owned by the daughter of the man for whom the Haskell is named. Given how little separates the bunch on paper, whomever prevails will establish some detachment in the ongoing cluster for sustained supremacy within the sophomore male division.
For a race that lacks any winners of this year's American classics, the 1 1/8-mile Haskell July 30 at Monmouth Park (NBC, 5 p.m.) could not have done much better to draw a quality field. While Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G2) winner Irish War Cry has form to go along with his sentimental backing, no one would be the least bit stunned if Sunday is the day multiple graded stakes winner McCraken reasserts himself at the divisional forefront, if Timeline emerges with his unbeaten mark intact, or if multiple grade 1 winner Practical Joke shows he is capable of winning around two turns for the first time.
"There's no monster horse out there. I think there is a lot of us that are all really about the same," said trainer Joe Sharp, who will send out Girvin Sunday after the colt was beaten a nose by Irap in the June 24 Ohio Derby (G3). "There are a lot of quality horses that are right about in the same spot in their progress and their progression forward. So we're not ducking anybody, and I don't think anybody is ducking anybody for that matter at this point."
With the exception of Woodford Racing's late-blooming Timeline—who is unbeaten in four starts, including back-to-back scores in the Peter Pan Stakes (G3) and Betfair.com Pegasus Stakes (G3) at Monmouth June 18—the rest of the field all got to know each other during the May 6 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) won by Always Dreaming.
While Battle of Midway outran his 40-1 odds to finish third on the first Saturday in May, McCraken and Irish War Cry were notably involved in a chain-reaction incident at the start and ended up finishing eighth and 10th, respectively. Where Irish War Cry regrouped to run second in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1) five weeks later, McCraken emerged from the Kentucky Derby with a puncture wound near his left hind ankle and was declared out of the rest of the classics by his connections.
"The one thing about this horse—he's never lost confidence," said Ian Wilkes, trainer of McCraken, who opened his 3-year-old season with a win in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3). "He's never lost his swagger. And I was very proud of him like that, you know, coming out of the Derby. You think he got banged around a little bit. He got beat—we got beat there. So you'd think, 'Wow, you know, he may lose a little confidence.'
"But the horse is ready now. He's on his game. I'm coming over with no excuses and it's a good field too, isn't it?"
Battle of Midway also skipped the last two legs of the Triple Crown and emerged to win in the June 24 Affirmed Stakes (G3) at Santa Anita Park by 4 1/4 lengths. Hence, 11th in the Derby and 9th in the Preakness Stakes (G1), righted his form with a dynamo last-to-first win in the July 7 Iowa Derby (G3) and Practical Joke, fifth in the Kentucky Derby, improved to four-for-four in one-turn contests with a two-length victory in the one-mile Dwyer Stakes (G3) July 8.
"It's no secret. It's right there in front of everyone that he's four-for-four at one turn and everyone knows he's excelled at that," said Chad Brown, who conditions both Practical Joke and Timeline. "But you have to take some chances and these are really important races. We thought he ran a good race in the (grade 2) Blue Grass Stakes (where he finished second to Irap) around two turns and the form of that race has held up well. I feel confident the horse can handle 1 1/8 miles. We think this is worth a try.
"It's either going to work well and he'll win, or it won't and he won't run around two turns again."
Practical Joke and McCraken are both pace dependent, and should get some fair fractions to run at should their rivals hold to their patterns. Timeline, Battle of Midway, and Irish War Cry have all won in gate-to-wire fashion and Girvin is equally capable of being up in the first flight.
Irish War Cry's owner/breeder Isabelle de Tomaso, daughter of Amory Haskell, makes an annual appearance in the Monmouth winner's circle for the purpose of handing out her family's signature race trophy. If her chestnut charge can successfully distance himself from his rivals, the hardware will literally be brought home.
"Certainly she made it clear to me that this was a race that she'd like to run in, although Isabelle has never pushed me to do anything with this horse," said Graham Motion, trainer of Irish War Cry. "She's about as easy-going an owner as I've ever had, so there's never been any expectations, but this was always a race that we've had a goal."
Monmouth Park, Sunday, July 30, 2017, Race 12
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Irish War Cry (NJ) Rajiv Maragh 118 H. Graham Motion 5/2 2 2Battle of Midway (KY) Flavien Prat 118 Jerry Hollendorfer 5/1 3 3Timeline (KY) Javier Castellano 118 Chad C. Brown 3/1 4 4Practical Joke (KY) Joel Rosario 118 Chad C. Brown 4/1 5 5McCraken (KY) Brian Joseph Hernandez, Jr. 118 Ian R. Wilkes 9/2 6 6Hence (KY) Paco Lopez 118 Steven M. Asmussen 12/1 7 7Girvin (KY) Robby Albarado 118 Joe Sharp 6/1
Monmouth Park, Sunday, July 30, 2017, Race 12