In a quality 6-horse field that trumps the overall competitiveness of 2015's coronation of American Pharoah, one could make a case for all of Sunday's competitors for top prize in a race that caps back-to-back days of 3-year-old showcases; yesterday, maiden Laoban won the Jim Dandy at 27-to-1 over the likes of Belmont winner Creator and top-shelf horses Destin, Mohaymen and Governor Malibu, and so the division appears wide open.
Unfortunately I'll be watching from home -- not because of wimpiness over getting wet but because my son's got the nastiest of stomach viruses now on day 3 -- but Exaggerator is my selection, and I think I can get 3-to-1.
Exaggerator ranged from a generous 7-to-2 and 4-to-1 on the Public Handicapper odds board over a 6-hour sample through publishing time, which to me represents a steal for a Grade 1 winner who is 3 of 4 in the off going and should appreciate today's moist conditions.
I envision a repeat scenario of the 2016 Preakness Stakes.
This time, favorite Nyquist draws further inside (he's in Post 1 for the Haskell), again prompting jockey Mario Gutierrez to gun for the lead and push anticipated pacesetters American Freedom and Awesome Slew into wide trips into the backstretch, which in my view compromises the chances of all three and sets the stage for Exaggerator to tuck in along the rail, save ground, and gobble up ground in the stretch for a $600,000 winner's share.
Here's my quick synopsis on all six competitors (morning line odds in parenthesis).
- Nyquist (6-5): Freshened after a very game and presumably taxing Preakness, where he finished third off a two-week turnaround from winning the Kentucky Derby. The questions become whether he takes to the off going as in the Grade 1 Florida Derby, where he won in a wire-to-wire fashion on a damp track, or if Mario figures he's just got the best horse and is willing to cede the early lead to another pacesetter and stalk the leaders.
- Sunny Ridge (20-1): Owned by Monmouth Park executive Dennis Drazin and a horse that I loved at the National Handicapping Championship in late January but who has not raced since a lackluster fourth in the Gotham Stakes in early March at Aqueduct. I would have given this horse serious consideration if he had a race to prep for the Haskell, but even the long-shot player in me sees Sunny Ridge as merely an outlier, even considering an extremely game second-place finish to Exaggerator in a wet Delta Jackpot in late-2015.
- Awesome Slew (15-1): A horse with top local connections but who was merely so-so in two Grade 3 races and should be the longest shot on the board but will be an underlay (currently 11-to-1 on Public Handicapper) because of the bettors' respect for jockey Paco Lopez. I project that Paco will roll the dice and gun for the lead, considering that this horse's two wins were sprints, but figure he'll maybe last for three-quarters before fading to last.
- Gun Runner (4-1): The "in" selection for about half of the public handicappers that I follow, but I see risk in the current 2-to-1 odds on Public Handicapper and would use this horse under Exaggerator and American Freedom in trifectas and superfectas. Also, his third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby is a bit overplayed, in my view, and I just think he'll get squeezed by the competitors to either side, then be left with much ground to make up late.
- American Freedom (3-1): Haskell killer Bob Baffert trains an upstart here who I think has a legitimate chance to win at an overlay. American Freedom is a late bloomer who did not make his debut until April, but has two lower-level stakes wins already, including a really gutsy win in the Sir Barton Stakes (see below) that signals his courage could be an asset in the Haskell.
- Exaggerator (5-2): Expect this one to come rolling late and win at a decent price. On a dry track, I might have had a different opinion, but for my money the wet going is a huge plus.
The way I'd play it is Exaggerator over American Freedom and Nyquist in the exacta and trifecta, then include Gun Runner and Sunny Ridge in the third and fourth slots. Best of luck!