Monmouth Park expects a cast of seven for Saturday’s $1 million Haskell Invitational (G1), with its principals at a crossroads. Maximum Security is looking to regain his Kentucky Derby (G1) form after an upset loss at the hands of the progressive King for a Day, while Mucho Gusto aims to answer a distance question in this 1 1/8-mile “Win and You’re in” for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).
Maximum Security had arrived at Churchill Downs unbeaten from four starts, rising from a lowly $16,000 maiden claiming score to become a dominant Florida Derby (G1) winner. The Gary and Mary West homebred appeared to make it five straight in the Kentucky Derby, only to be disqualified for interference and placed 17th.
Skipping the rest of the Triple Crown to aim for the Haskell, Maximum Security was the 1-20 favorite to capture the local prep, the June 16 Pegasus, but was overturned by the improving King for a Day. Trainer Jason Servis told Monmouth publicity that he believes Maximum Security is beginning to recover his pre-Derby form.
“I would say he is starting to point that way,” Servis said on July 6. “Right now he’s doing good.”
Servis sounded enthusiastic after Maximum Security turned in his final Haskell work on Monday. Based on the Jersey Shore since the Kentucky Derby, he took to the Monmouth track early for his customary open gallop under exercise rider Alvaro Tomas.
“He did super. Really good,” his trainer said. “He went a mile in 1:53 and change. He got the first half in a minute and came home in :53 and change.
“I’m feeling good about him.”
King for a Day
The Todd Pletcher-trained King for a Day wasn’t exactly a total shock in the Pegasus as the 5-1 second choice. A solid fourth in last fall’s Kentucky Jockey Club (G2), the Uncle Mo colt did not make his sophomore debut until the Sir Barton on Preakness Day, and proved worth the wait with a convincing score. Then the Pegasus marked a new career high second off the layoff.
“That was a huge win for him to beat the horse who crossed the finish line first in the Kentucky Derby,” Pletcher told NYRA publicity. “He’s perhaps a horse that has been on our radar. We’ve thought a lot of him since he came here last year. We gave him a little time after he ran at Churchill in the fall and so he was a little behind schedule for the Triple Crown but came back in the Sir Barton on Preakness Day and looked impressive and took another move forward with a win in the Pegasus.”
At his Saratoga summer home, King for a Day covered a half-mile officially in :48.39 over the Oklahoma training track July 13. Hall of Famer John Velazquez was aboard for the move in company with Just Right, who clocked the same time ahead of the Finger Lakes Derby.
Red Oak Stable Racing Manager Rick Sacco provided details in the Monmouth notes.
“He went the half in :48.33, five-eighths in 1:01.10, was out three-quarters in 1:14 and out in seven-eighths in 1:28,” Sacco said. “It was a maintenance work but he was in the bridle strong and (Velazquez) never moved on him.”
“He breezed really well,” Velazquez said. “Right on schedule which is what Todd wanted and it was a very nice work.”
Pletcher noted that King for a Day was spot-on for the Haskell, which could propel him into the August 24 Travers (G1).
“Certainly, the way he went this morning I would be enthusiastic about going,” the trainer said of the Haskell, “assuming that everything is in good order.
“It’s a little better scheduling for the Travers now that the Haskell is moved forward eight days sooner than it used to be. So that gives him the possibility of coming back in the Travers if everything goes well.”
Bob Baffert owns the record with eight Haskell wins, the most recent courtesy of Triple Crown champion American Pharoah (2015), and the Hall of Famer bids for number nine with Mucho Gusto.
Although by a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner in Mucho Macho Man (2013) and out of a mare by Classic near-misser Giant’s Causeway (2000), Mucho Gusto has shown more speed than stamina so far. Two of his four graded victories have come going seven furlongs – last November’s Bob Hope (G3) at Del Mar and the May 18 Laz Barrera (G3). He’s rolled in two of three starts at 1 1/16 miles. Second in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) in his two-turn debut, Mucho Gusto later romped in the Robert B. Lewis (G3) and added the June 6 Affirmed (G3) over stablemate Roadster.
The admirably consistent colt has finished out of the top two only once, a third in the Sunland Derby (G3), in his only attempt at nine furlongs. That might not be a true bill about his effectiveness at this trip, since he was embroiled in a speed duel on the rail.
Moreover, as an April 26 foal, Mucho Gusto has every right to strengthen with maturity. And Baffert observes that the Michael Lund Petersen runner is on an upward curve.
“If I didn’t think we had a chance to win, I wouldn’t send him,” Baffert said. I think he’s got a chance. If everybody shows up and runs the way they’re capable of, it should be a heck of a race.
“He’s a horse who I think is getting better. He’s very consistent. But he’s going to have to step up in order to compete with these horses.
“This is a horse that is slowly getting there. He’s been pretty solid to this point, but I think he is still getting better. This would be a big accomplishment for him if he were to win.
“I like to take a swing at the fences. Sometimes you have to do that. If he wins, it’s great. Even second would be fine. I’m not going in with the favorite like I usually do, but I think he deserves a chance so we’ll take a shot at it.”
Baffert is wary of Maximum Security on the rebound.
“If Maximum Security runs his race, I think he will be tough,” said Baffert, who also trains champion Game Winner for the Wests. “I thought he just got tired last time.”
Ironically, Mucho Gusto reminds Baffert of a past West colorbearer, Power Broker, the 2013 Haskell runner-up.
“Mucho Gusto is a little like Power Broker. He’s that kind of horse.”
At Santa Anita, Mucho Gusto has fired consecutive six-furlong bullets, exercising in 1:13.60 on July 4 and ratcheting up to 1:12.20 on July 12. Regular rider Joe Talamo retains the mount.
Front-running hero of Monmouth’s Long Branch prior to a gritty third in the Belmont (G1), Joevia signaled his well-being by blasting five-eighths in a bullet :58.40 at the Jersey Shore July 13. The Greg Sacco trainee tied with workmate Bal Bay Drive for the fastest of 17 works on the day, two full seconds better than the third.
“He went in :58.2 and was out in 11 (seconds) and change,” Sacco said. “He worked super.
“That was what we were looking for. The other horse (Bal Bay Drive) is a talented horse who just broke his maiden and is going to run on Haskell Day.
“We know he’s a nice colt,” Sacco said of Joevia. “We wanted to go for it today. I didn’t want to pussyfoot into the Haskell. He did it well within himself.”
Calumet Farm’s Everfast, second in the Preakness at 29-1, comes off a seventh in the Belmont. The Dale Romans pupil misses much more than he hits, but that doesn’t discourage his trainer, who points out that the speed-laden Haskell sets up for a closer.
“I’m not frustrated by what he has done,” Romans said of Everfast, who has been unplaced in seven of nine graded stakes starts. “To me he’s the little engine that could. He tries hard. It took him a while to get going and to show his talent but that’s starting to happen.
“Finishing second in the Preakness was big and it was also big to only get beat 3 1/4 lengths in the Belmont Stakes. That was a good race he ran.
“You can tell he’s improving. The Preakness was by far his best race. His coming out party was the Holy Bull ([G2] where he was second) and then he let people know he was still around in the Preakness. His Belmont wasn’t a bad race, either.
“The Haskell is one of my favorite races of the year. Any time I have a chance to compete there we’re going to take it. (Calumet Farm owner) Mr. (Brad) Kelley loves the Haskell as well, so he said ‘let’s take a chance.’
“We’ll try to do what Coil did – sit back and then come running late,” Romans added, alluding to the 2011 Haskell winner who mugged his Shackleford. “Nail the leader at the wire. That would be great. I like the way the race shapes up for us. It looks like it’s a nice fit for a closer.”
Everfast, who had been at Churchill, breezed a half over Saratoga’s main track in :49.49 Sunday.
Bethlehem Road and Spun to Run
The two remaining contenders, as of Sunday, are both Parx residents taking a serious class test.
Bethlehem Road was a perfect three-for-three over his home track, including the Parx Spring Derby, before a distant fourth in the Ohio Derby (G3). Trainer Dee Curry thinks a troubled trip at Thistledown compromised the Quality Road gelding.
“I was disappointed in the Ohio Derby because he got bumped hard four times during that race,” Curry said. “The fourth time he got bumped the jockey (Luis A. Rodriguez Castro) said he just seemed to take a deep breath and say `that’s it. I’m done.’
“He has never been bumped the way he was bumped that race. So we’re going to give him a shot in the Haskell. We have nothing to lose.
“We were thinking about the West Virginia Derby (G3) or the Curlin at Saratoga. All of the races we were looking at were a mile and an eighth. I’m at Parx. I’m right next door to Monmouth Park. That might be a plus. I don’t have to go that far. I can keep him home until race day. I think that will be a benefit.
“I’m a small trainer,” added Curry, who would be the first female trainer to win the Haskell. “I don’t get these kinds of opportunities with a horse that fits in this type of race very often. Sometimes you have to take a chance.”
Spun to Run, two-for-two since stretching out to two turns, hasn’t raced since his entry-level allowance romp on March 23. The Hard Spun colt subsequently underwent surgery to correct a trapped epiglottis, and trainer Juan Carlos Guerrero has been so pleased with him that the Haskell holds appeal.
“He came back perfect (from the surgery),” Guerrero said. “I started looking at the races available and this made sense to me. It’s an easy ship from Parx. I know Maximum Security is a good horse but I’m not sure he is the same horse he was. He just got beat, so we know he can lose.”
Spun to Run will pick up a new rider in Paco Lopez along with the addition of blinkers.
“I look at this as a wide-open race,” Guerrero commented. “There are two really nice horses in it but I think my horse is sitting on a very good race.
“I think he is right there with these horses. He was good without blinkers. To me, blinkers move him up five lengths – which puts him right there with these horses. And it’s a $1 million race. So why not try?”
Will any others throw their hats into the ring? We’ll find out in the next couple of days as entries will be drawn Wednesday.
Photo: King for a Day runs down disqualified Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security to upset the Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth Park on Sunday, June 16, 2019 (c) Equi-Photo/Bill Denver