Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has won the Haskell Invitational (gr. I) a record five times including the past two editions. Ask him the secret to taking home the trophy from Monmouth Park and he'll tell you it's simple: eat a hot dog and send out a good horse.
"That's the secret," said Baffert, whose Haskell winners are Point Given (2001), War Emblem (2002), Roman Ruler (2005), Lookin At Lucky (2010), and Coil (2011). "You have to go to Max’s Hot Dogs and get a hot dog for lunch and then that usually works."
Baffert won't chow down on Jersey fare July 29—he'll watch the race from his home base in Southern California while delegating saddling duties and hot dog consumption to right hand man Jim Barnes. But he'll definitely send out a good runner in Zayat Stables' Paynter , who starts from post 3 as the 3-2 favorite on the morning line. Rafael Bejarano rides.
"I'm just happy enough to have a horse good enough to run and be the favorite," Baffert said when asked his thoughts on the 1 1/8-mile test. Earlier in the month he considered sending Bodemeister , the brilliant runner-up in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I), but that one spiked a temperature and was forced to remain at home.
Paynter, a lightly raced son of Awesome Again , set the pace in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes (gr. I) June 9 and almost hung on for victory, getting passed by Union Rags to lose by a neck in the shadow of the wire. His five starts, all in 2012, include a maiden win and allowance score along with a runner-up finish in The Cliff's Edge Derby Trial (gr. III) April 28 at Churchill Downs.
Five other contenders lining up for their shot at a $1 million purse join Paynter in trying to bring excitement to a summer season lacking major 3-year-old stars. The earlier buzz of the Triple Crown trail fizzled when Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another and Union Rags were both retired after their Classic scores.
"I don't know if anyone could replace the excitement of I'll Have Another," said trainer Doug O'Neill, who joins familiar forces with owner Paul Reddam and jockey Mario Gutierrez to send out maiden winner Handsome Mike for a longshot at the big-time. The son of Scat Daddy last raced fourth in the Vinery Spiral Stakes (gr. III) at Turfway Park March 24, but put in what O'Neill called "an unbelievable work" July 21 at Betfair Hollywood Park, going six furlongs handily in 1:11 3/5.
"He's a really talented colt, he's maybe a little bit of an underachiever looking at his form," O'Neill remarked. "We were bouncing around whether we could make a race like the Haskell and after that work the other day, he stamped that he was ready. He's so versatile, he's got speed, he can come from out of it. He's a horse that tries hard every time and he's sure acting like he's ready to roll."
The Haskell is the start of finding out who has potential to become a star in the second half of the year. It also gives runners who disappointed in earlier races a chance to redeem themselves en route to the Aug. 25 Travers Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga Race Course. That's certainly the case for Donegal Racing's Dullahan and WinStar Farm's Gemologist , the former trained by Dale Romans and the latter from the Todd Pletcher barn. They're co-second choices at 3-1 on the morning line, and will be ridden by Kent Desormeaux and Javier Castellano from posts 2 and 4, respectively.
Gemologist, by Tiznow , was unbeaten in five starts including a dominant victory in the Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I). He then bombed in the Kentucky Derby with a 16th-place finish last time out. His connections said he bruised a foot during the running of the race, and he was given time off at WinStar Farm in Lexington before returning to training at the end of May.
"We certainly have never been more disappointed with a Derby performance," said Pletcher. "We really felt like we had a horse that was doing great at the time and he didn't run anywhere close to his abilities... since he came back to New York he's been training exceptionally well."
Gemologist turned in a sparkling five-furlong breeze in :58.40 at Saratoga Race Course July 22, fastest of 43 moves timed at the distance on the day. He'll ship to Monmouth the day of the race, leaving Pletcher's Saratoga base around 4:30 a.m. It's the same pattern Pletcher followed with another WinStar contender, Bluegrass Cat , to win the Haskell in 2006. WinStar, in collaboration with Padua Stables, also won the 2007 Haskell with the Pletcher-trained Any Given Saturday.
"I think (Gemologist) looks about as good as a horse can look at the moment and his breeze here at Saratoga on Sunday was very good," Pletcher said. "It was great to see that he trained well and he was ready to go. Hopefully he'll run well and we'll have a fresh horse for the Travers four weeks from now."
Dullahan, who won the 1 1/8-mile Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) in April and finished third in the Kentucky Derby in spite of a troubled trip, also seeks redemption for a disappointing finish in his last start. Sent off as the 5-2 favorite in the Belmont, he struggled to get ahold of the sandy surface and ran seventh.
Romans shipped the Even the Score runner to Monmouth Park July 23 to get a feel for the New Jersey oval.
"My guys say he's doing well," said the trainer, who will travel to Monmouth on the weekend. "It seems like he's training well over the racetrack and handling it. I like the mile and an eighth for him because you're going to get more pace in front of him than the one and a half miles in the Belmont. He can sit and make one big kick at the end."
Nonios won the June 3 Affirmed Handicap (gr. III) at Betfair Hollywood Park and second by three-quarters of a length to Blueskiesnrainbows in the Swaps Stakes (gr. II) there in his last start July 4.
Nonios, a son of Pleasantly Perfect, will make his dirt debut for owner Green B. Smith and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.
"I did most of his 2-year-old training at Pleasanton up in Northern California, so he's been on dirt quite a bit," said Hollendorfer, who won the Haskell 23 years ago with King Glorious. "I always kind of liked him when he was there, and then I liked him when he went on the synthetic also. We're trying to see what kind of horse we have here, and this is a good test for him."
John Oxley's Stealcase, a son of Lawyer Ron who was runner-up in the June 16 Matt Winn Stakes (gr. III) at Churchill Downs for trainer Mark Casse last out, completes the field.
$1 Million Haskell Invitational (gr. I, Race 13, 6:17 p.m.), 3YOs, 1 1/8 Miles
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, ML Odds
1. Nonios, C. Nakatani, 118, Jerry Hollendorfer 7-2
2. Dullahan, K. Desormeaux, 120, D Romans, 3-1
3. Paynter, R. Bejarano, 118, B Baffert, 3-2
4. Gemologist, J. Castellano, 120, T Pletcher, 3-1
5. Handsome Mike, M. Gutierrez, 118, D. O'Neill, 15-1
6. Stealcase, S. Brigmohan, 118, M Casse, 8-1