Dating back to 1968, Monmouth Park’s Haskell Invitational Stakes brings back plenty of memories before Saturday’s renewal.
My favorites list contains an “Eye of the Racing World” criteria. Which events make the Haskell the epicenter of the horse racing industry?
Given its unique position on the circuit, bridging the Triple Crown races and the fall season, the Haskell is not a stand-alone big race. Its popularity is intertwined with events that directly precede it.
Those that elevated the Haskell profile made this list.
Granted, Haskell Day is different this year, as the global coronavirus pandemic pushed the Triple Crown races out of their usual order. The Monmouth Park event is now between two of racing’s biggest events: the Belmont Stakes and the Kentucky Derby.
To that end, here is my list of the top five Haskell races in history.
1. August 2, 2015 — America’s horse, American Pharoah
It was a weeklong coronation bringing the expected result for a delirious racing public. Before a record crowd of 60,983, American Pharoah remained America’s top horse, winning in a breeze.
By becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, American Pharoah enhanced the ensuing Haskell. After winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, this horse next appeared at the Haskell and went off as a prohibitive 1-9 favorite.
On this day, the fans weren’t seeking a great horse race. They wanted to celebrate the best horse in the country. They wanted the Triple Crown party to continue.
And it did, as Victor Espinoza guided American Pharoah to the lead around the final turn and galloped home in a hand ride. Espinoza never went to the whip. In racing-industry parlance, American Pharoah “won for fun,” never challenged in the slightest.
2. July 20, 2019 — Maximum Security: Justice delayed, not denied
The verdict was still being challenged unsuccessfully in court when the drama shifted to Monmouth Park. Would Maximum Security rebound?
It took two steps to say yes. First, Maximum Security needed all his talent to repel a stubborn Mucho Gusto and gain a narrow victory at horse betting odds of 4-5. He was full out and barely had enough.
And then, oh-oh. The inquiry sign went up again. But unlike the 22-minute review at the Derby, this was quick. King for a Day had checked sharply during the backstretch. This had nothing to do with Maximum Security, and the result held.
Maximum Security became a famous Haskell grad, winning the world’s richest horse race in 2020: the $20 million Saudi Cup.
3. August 2, 2009 — Rachel Alexandra throttles the boys
Horse racing gets goose bumps when a filly beats the males.
America had fallen in love with Rachel Alexandra, who had become the first filly in 85 years to win the Preakness Stakes a couple of months before the 2009 Haskell. The darling of the horse racing world had followed with a stakes record of 1:46.33 for 1 1/8 miles at the Mother Goose and a record margin of victory, 19 1/4 lengths.
Both marks stand today.
Rachel Alexandra entered the Haskell 6-for-6 in 2009 and would compile a perfect season of 8-for-8.
Former New York Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca, who had become a horse racing analyst, underscored her credentials during the nationally televised post parade. Noting that he’d been fortunate to play in stadiums and under pressure, the former MLB All-Star said, “Rachel Alexandra gives me chills. She is the best-looking horse I have ever seen in person. She looks absolutely immaculate. I am speechless.”
His praise was prophetic as Rachel Alexandra romped home at odds of 2-5. She not only beat the field easily but topped Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird by six lengths. As she thundered down the homestretch, she was described as “a filly for the ages, a Haskell legend” by track announcer Larry Collmus.
From there, Rachel Alexandra won the Woodward Stakes, finished an undefeated campaign and won Horse of the Year honors.
4. August 1, 1987 — Bet Twice nips Alysheba in thriller
It was a dream matchup. Alysheba had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. Bet Twice had won the Belmont, denying Alysheba the Triple Crown.
The Haskell showcased the best two horses in the country, head to head. This was their fourth matchup in two months. It was a coup.
And the stars did not disappoint, waging a Haskell battle for the ages.
Bet Twice, at 6-5, slid past Lost Code in the stretch, and Alysheba came charging hard on the outside. The three hit the wire closely. But Bet Twice had outlasted Alysheba and needed every bit of excellence to do it.
Bet Twice tied the race record of 1:47 set by Majestic Light in 1976. Anything less would not have been good enough. This race would have made the list on that basis alone. A kicker? I had $50 on Bet Twice.
5. July 27, 1985 — Skip Trial shocks Spend a Buck
The Haskell was front and center for the coronation of Spend a Buck. It went awry.
The race garnered monstrous attention because of what preceded it. Spend a Buck had bypassed the Preakness Stakes after winning the Kentucky Derby in order to complete a four-race bonus package with Garden State Park.
He won the $2 million bonus there by seizing the Jersey Derby as racing purists blasted his ownership group for the Triple Crown snub.
The Haskell could prove Spend a Buck really was the best horse at the time.
Turns out he wasn’t.
Spend a Buck finished second to Skip Trial, a 35-1 longshot. After winning four races in April and May, he simply looked leg-weary at the Haskell. The race set up perfectly for him.
Spend a Buck was on the lead alone in slow fractions and led by three lengths coming for home. He had no reason not to win. But Spend a Buck was spent. There was nothing left in the tank, and he finished a clear second.
Although Spend a Buck became the best horse in the nation that year, he wasn’t the best on this day.
Three weeks later, ironically, he bounced back. Spend a Buck set a track record of 1:46.80 for the 1 1/8-mile distance. It stands today.
Enamored with the horse, Monmouth Park did name a stakes race after Spend a Buck.
I hope this list brought back some good memories for you.