Saturday, July 29, 2017

It's Time to Get McCracken

The pressure's on a bit after giving the winner and trifecta last year, but NJ Horseplayer is up to the challenge of a repeat for Monmouth Park's annual showcase, the 2017 Haskell Invitational.

This year's field of seven lacks a Triple Crown stakes winner like an Exaggerator (2016) or the star power of an American Pharoah (2015), though weather conditions appear to be optimal and the depth of the field makes for a challenging puzzle yet promising payouts for winning bettors.

We've gone into detail on each of Sunday's runners, but think it's a two horse field, with McCracken getting a slight edge over Battle of Midway. We'll use Timeline underneath.
NJ Horseplayer gives McCracken
slight edge over Battle of Midway

Sorry, New Jersey, but our money's not going to the Jersey-bred Irish War Cry, clearly the sentimental favorite and the top choice by the oddsmakers. He was an extremely game second in the Belmont Stakes and has been pointed toward the Haskell from the get-go, but his running style may be compromised by the rail draw, especially with a long run into the first turn.

Battle of Midway got serious consideration as the winner since he's got good natural speed -- an angle that typically plays well at Monmouth. But he's our second choice, figuring in the end that he will get run down late by McCracken, who earlier this season won a race at Tampa Bay Downs that's proving productive on several fronts.

Betting wise, on a $60 bankroll we'll play:

  • $10 Win 5
  • $10 Exacta Key: 5 with 2, 3 ($20 total)
  • $2 Trifecta: 5 with 2, 3, with 2, 3, 4, 7 ($12 total)
  • $1 Trifecta 2 with 3, 5, with 2, 3, 4, 5, 7 ($6 total)
  • $1 Superfecta: 5 with 2, 3, with 2, 3 with ALL ($8 total)
  • $0.50 Superfecta 2 with 3, 5, with 3, 5 with ALL ($4 total)

2017 Haskell Invitational horse-by-horse analysis

#1, Irish War Cry (5-2): The sentimental choice as a New Jersey-bred and owned by the granddaughter of the man for whom this race is named, and likely the post-time favorite. Drawing the rail, however, could be a big detriment. The only time he won when off the pace was in the Wood Memorial in April, where he beat a front-runner who has since come back unimpressively with a third-place showing on July 8 against lesser company. Jockey Rajiv Maragh is going to have to choose between working hard to get the lead vs. the two horses directly to his outside or hoping for a clean break, establish a close stalking position along the rail and save ground and wait for a seam. If anything else, I think his runner-up performance in the Belmont Stakes was more flattering for the winner that day, Tapwrit, who ran Irish War Cry down at a middling pace. Cautious about anything better than 3rd, based largely on the post position. If he's not involved early, beware.

#2, Battle of Midway (5-1): This one's gutty and a must-use, albeit "underneath," on tickets. He's perhaps the best gate-breaker in the field and I sense will easily get to the turn before Irish War Cry and establish the tempo. Based on his game Santa Anita Derby effort as well, he's outlasted other front-runners when looked in the eye. The question here is whether Timeline's connections stalk off of Battle of Midway's flank, thinking they've got a better horse, or gun for the front. I'm projecting that Battle of Midway will get the lead and outlast Timeline, but get gunned down late by an off-the-pace type. Runner-up and potential win threat.

#3, Timeline (3-1): The first of trainer Chad Brown's two entrants appears to have tremendous upside and has progressed well in going 4-for-4 since making his debut in March. Yet the question for me is his level of competition. It's going to be much stiffer in the Haskell than what was a paid workout at Monmouth on June 18 in winning the Grade 3 Pegasus at 1-to-9 odds. In seeing that race live on Father's Day, you knew they were using it as a prep for the Haskell. Timeline clearly has talent, but "the other Chad Brown" will offer better wagering value (i.e. higher odds) and has faced significantly tougher foes heading into the Haskell. Probably second or third.

#4, Practical Joke (4-1): "The other Chad Brown" runner, indeed, has been entered into far tougher races than Timeline, but I'm suspicious about whether Practical Joke is a two-turn horse and can beat this field. You can point to his fifth-place showing in the Kentucky Derby from post 19 and on a wet track as evidence of him "outclassing" much of this field, and he's got $1.3 million of lifetime earnings to back it. Yet a deeper dive into his eight races raises questions. He's just 1-for-4 as a three-year-old, and in that win on July 8 in the Dwyer Stakes at Belmont (a one-turn race at a mile) was against only four others, and he didn't necessarily blow away from a 43-to-1 runner-up in the stretch. A highlight of his two-year-old campaign was a victory by a neck over horses that were 15-to-1 and 25-to-1. And in his Derby prep this April in the Bluegrass Stakes, he couldn't pass 31-to-1 Irap in the stretch. Go against Chad Brown horses at your own risk, but there's a lot to dislike here. Third or fourth at best, solely out of respect for the connections.

#5, McCracken (9-2): I'm not sure we've seen the best of this one yet, but sense he can steal the Haskell. The Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 11 is proving highly productive. Runner-up Tapwrit won both the Tampa Bay Derby and Belmont Stakes. Third-place runner, State of Honor, finished second in his next two -- to Tapwrit in the Tampa Bay Derby and Always Dreaming in both the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby -- and came back with a game third in the Queen's Plate at Woodbine last month. I've panned jockey Brian Hernandez in the past, but sense that he's got a live stalker-closer type here who can win under either a fast or slower pace. Coming in off an easy Grade 3 win at Churchill where he was squeezed at the start, McCracken is my selection as the winner of the 2017 Haskell Invitational

#6, Hence (12-1): Local jockey Paco Lopez will get bettors' support on the longest shot in the field, but I think the morning line's accurate for a horse that made it into the Kentucky Derby field by winning the little-known Sunland Park Derby in New Mexico, two grades below Haskell's level of competition. Hence got bounced around like a pinball at the start of the Kentucky Derby and ran a one-paced 11th before entering and tiring badly in the Preakness Stakes. He's coming into the Haskell off a win vs. lesser in the Iowa Derby and isn't the quickest of foot from the gate. The best-case scenario is fourth-place, rounding out the superfecta. 

#7, Girvin (6-1): It's hard to knock this one, who has two Grade 2 stakes wins and somehow lost by a nose to Bluegrass Stakes winner Irap on June 24 in the Ohio Derby. Toss his Kentucky Derby try, where he was among those jostled right at the start and knocked out of contention. I sense he'll be a little closer to the pace in the Haskell, which should play well on a historically speed-favoring track. Yet I'm hesitant to call him a winning prospect. Girvin and Hence are the only two runners where their past winning jockey is not shipping in for a Grade 1 race, which to me is a concern. Here's another whose ceiling, in my opinion, is to round out the superfecta -- maybe third or fourth. 

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