As a horseplayer and passionate Monmouth Park fan and New Jerseyan, I absolutely care about the historical significance of the event because I love horse racing and pray for a half-decent contest on Sunday
Candidly, however, substitute "past performances" for "hands" and there's my sentiment about this year's field.
Might as well just toss 'em in the air. Pitch 'em.
Past performances of this year's field, or the hieroglyphics, if you will, tell us the story of not-of-this-world American Pharoah and a band of ragtag followers.
Now, I'm no visionary, but American Pharoah crossing the finish line first by several lengths difference will not be a mystery.
The mystery is building a profitable ticket for Race 12 on Sunday with a short-priced favorite, which I hope to do here with a look at the 2015 Haskell Invitational field, first ranking the field, in my view, from top to bottom.
#4 American Pharoah (morning line odds: 1-5): The only way Pharoah fails to run the field off its feet is if he stumbles out of the starting gate and gets pinched inward by #5 Mr. Jordan or has such a bad start (i.e., takes a bad step) that Victor Espinoza completely pulls Pharoah out of the race for preservation sake. I merely speculate that Espinoza is under strict orders to pull up if he feels anything is amiss where Pharoah is exposed to potential injury that would compromise his Breeders Cup campaign, breeding future or survival. I may make a few backup $2 show wagers on other horses, assuming the bridge-jumpers pounce on Pharoah in the show pool, but otherwise he completely routs this field after taking the lead or sitting close second behind clear front-runner #2 Competitive Edge into the first turn, settling into the backstretch and turning on the jets without prompting. Pharoah's the only Grade 1 winner in the field and has won decisively in the slop, God forbid the weather turns bad on Sunday. Projected final odds: 1-9.
#5 Mr. Jordan (15-1): This has nothing to do with local connections or drinking the Jersey Cool Aid, but rather a horse who is still learning and improving and I think is in way better form than #1 Upstart and #2 Competitive Edge. Monmouth-based trainer Edward Plesa, Jr. has what, to me, looks like a formidable 3-year-old with upside and that lost to Competitive Edge in March at Gulfstream Park but still finished second in his 3-year-old debut off a 4-month layoff. Since then, Mr. Jordan sports two straight wins -- one at a 1-turn mile (overnight stakes at Gulfstream on April 25) and the other at 2 turns (a mile and a sixteenth) in the Grade 3 Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth on June 21. Mr. Jordan is 4-for-6 in his early career and has shown both front-end and tactical speed (i.e. stalking, then passing, the leaders) and I anticipate will seek a spot just off American Pharoah's right flank and hope to hang on for second or get extremely lucky if Pharoah's off his A (or C) game. Mr. Jordan drifted out into the lane very late in his last two races, but I figure the last race was a good stamina builder and the horse sports good works, including one in the mud, where I'm guessing Mr. Plesa was testing the waters in the event it rains on Haskell Day (unlikely). Keeping Paco Lopez aboard Mr. Jordan is otherwise another bullish indicator to me, as I'm sure Monmouth Park's top jockey could have had his pick of a few of other horses here.
#6 Keen Ice (12-1): I really dislike Keen Ice's late-running style for speed-favoring Monmouth, but I sense he can simply outlast the rest to the wire and maybe pick up third-place money (second-place, at best). This Dale Romans trainee is 0-for-7 since breaking his maiden last September at Churchill Downs in a 1-turn mile, but gets a huge pass for running in 4 Grade 2 and 3 Grade 1 races. Keen's 3rd-place finish in the Belmont was curious in that jockey Kent Desormeaux seemed to take his horse back from a good stalking position almost to the rear and a subsequently wide trip, but the horse responded to urging in the lane and at least kept up with Pharoah. The question with this one becomes whether he's just a lazy sort who needs more urging earlier in a race, or is chronically over-matched and should maybe pass the allowance condition before taking on another graded stakes field.
#2 Competitive Edge (8-1): This one's the rabbit for American Pharoah, as I see it, and should benefit from a speed-favoring track and maybe hang on for a minor award. Edge boasts a Grade 3 win at Churchill on Kentucky Derby Day, but that was at a 1-turn mile, and the horse's three wins prior also were at one turn, albeit sprint distances (6 and 7 furlongs). Edge flopped in his last start, the Grade 2 Woody Stephens on Belmont Stakes Day in a race far faster than anything this horse won earlier in his career, so I expect Edge's speed to carry him for most of the race before fading late.
#1 Upstart (6-1): It's hard to dismiss the second choice with Monmouth master Jersey Joe Bravo aboard this Grade 2 winner (Holy Bull at Gulfstream on January 24), but his Kentucky Derby effort showed me that he does not like getting dirt kicked in his face. Watch the replay and you'll find a horse who jerks his head several times into the first turn, apparently averse to the kickback from the leaders. He had a decent break from not the worst of post positions but basically quit thereafter. I would have given him a much better chance in the Haskell had he drawn an outside post (where he won most of his prior races), but in my view, Edge, Pharoah, Mr. Jordan and perhaps even #3, Nonna's Boy, establish the lead and Bravo takes Upstart at least 3 or 4 paths wide, which will compromise a horse whose 3-year-old wins were just off the pace. I get the second-choice morning line, but think it's based on a gaudy win in the Grade 2 Holy Bull at a time where 3-year-old horses are far from mature. To me, Upstart might be the equivalent of the 10-year-old giant who dominates rec ball until the other kids outgrowing him by age 14. This horse, to me, is an all or nothing proposition, similar to Materiality, who was the hot horse heading into the Belmont and flopped.
#3 Nonna's Boy (30-1): Lamplighter Stakes on July 18 shows this one is better suited to turf, and wheeling the horse into this race two weeks off the Lamplighter is questionable, but he has at least shown some early foot in past races and was game in the $150,000 Easy Goer Stakes on Belmont Stakes Day. The runner-up in that 3-horse field, Stanford, barely won the Long Branch Stakes at Monmouth earlier in the meet but flopped in Friday's $100,000 Curlin Stakes at Saratoga. PASS on this horse, who might actually take some money on solely trainer-owner (Pletcher-Repole).
#8 Dontbetwithbruno (30-1): Another Pletcher Monmouth B-teamer whose best was a conditioned allowance win at PARX in April. Bruno never came close to Mr. Jordan or Nonna's Boy in head-to-head match-ups and should be 50-1 or more come post-time. Take a flyer on Pletcher here at your own risk, as this one's an even bigger reach than his Repole stablemate (Nonna's Boy).
#7 Top Clearance (30-1): I wanted to consider this one for fourth-place money but cannot in good conscience. I'll walk home from Monmouth if Top Clearance wins. OK, so I live less than 10 miles away and walking might be a faster means than navigating all of the car traffic exiting Oceanport, but you catch my drift. The gaudy win on July 11 was against $20,000 optional conditioned claimers. In short, the horse beat up on 4 others, including some much older horses, but did take well to his first two-turn race. I have nothing against trainer Wayne Catalano, but expecting anything more than finishing the race fifth on an enormous step up to Grade 1 company is insane. Free country, though.