To many the Haskell is just one of numerous big races that dot our racing landscape. To me, it is much more. Growing up in New Jersey, I had a special connection to the race. Known to me as the Monmouth Invitational until my twelfth birthday, the Haskell was the race I identified most with in my youth. It was the best of New Jersey, and I pointed for it year in and year out. With a particularly deep Haskell Invitational set to commence at Monmouth Park in 48 hours, I decided to recap some of my favorite moments from Haskell’s past.
In 1975 and 1976 there were back-to-back family favorites in the winner’s circle, as Wajima and Majestic Light each used the Monmouth Invitational to win their first major race, and in so doing, announced themselves as horses on the rise. Wajima gutted out a hard fought victory in 1975, while Majestic Light whistled in ‘76. Each would win numerous big races after leaving Monmouth, but it was on Invitational Day where they held their coming out parties.
In 1980 it was the unheralded J-bred, Thanks to Tony, who sent shock waves through the shore oval grandstand. Let go at 23-1, Tony won by a half length, and defeated two of the best colts in training, in Superbity and Amber Pass. It was not the largest win payoff in the history of the race, but the local horse is the one that I consider to have been the biggest surprise.
The next Haskell was especially gratifying for me, as my choice took it to the champion Lord Avie. Five Star Flight was my absolute favorite horse of 1981, so I saved up my money, and had my Dad put it all on the son of Top Command to win. Win he did, as the 1-2 shot Lord Avie could never get close to him. Five Star Flight won the biggest race of his career by five lenghts, and I smiled for days.
1986 was the year of my best Haskell wager, as I was on longshot winner Wise Times. Under jockey Chris DeCarlo, he took command in the lane and coasted to a relatively easy 1 ¼ length score. I always remember my longshot winners, and at 11-1, Wise Times fit the bill. He beat a field that included Personal Flag, Danzig Connection, Broad Brush, and John‘s Treasure that day, and went on to win the Travers and Super Derby in his next two.
I believe the two greatest runnings of the Haskell occurred in consecutive years of 1987 and 1988. First it was Belmont winner Bet Twice, beating Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba, and streaking stakes winner Lost Code in a three-horse battle of wills that I will never forget. I was on Lost Code that day, but I still recognize the race as the best ever held at Monmouth Park. Then, not to be outdone, Forty Niner outfought unlucky Seeking the Gold the final half mile to win the head-to-head battle by a desperate nose. The two sons of Mr. Prospector were two of the finest that year, and would run in similar breathtaking fashion in the Travers.
In 1990 Restless Con became the second straight Northern California invader, after King Glorious, to take the big prize. Not sure who I was going to bet until seeing them in the paddock, I was taken by the beautiful gray, and even more so after seeing him claim the only grade 1 victory of his career.
The mid-nineties brought some fabulous champions to Monmouth Park and they strutted their stuff with speed and power. Holy Bull, Serena’s Song, and Skip Away were three of the greats of their era, and in 1994 - 1996 they came, they saw, and they conquered the Haskell Invitational. The outcomes were never really in doubt for each, as they rewarded their throngs of supporters with wins that helped all of them win year end honors.
2001 was all about Point Given, and the Haskell was another stop on his march to stardom. Trainer Bob Baffert will be looking for his 4th Haskell win with Lookin at Lucky on Sunday, but it is Point Given who I consider to be the best horse he has ever trained, and it was a treat to see him run at Monmouth. Six graded stakes wins in seven starts that year, if only he had run his race in the Derby.
In 2007, the Haskell attracted the big horse Curlin, but in order to win, he would need to beat two tigers in Any Given Saturday and Hard Spun. He beat neither. In one of the more impressive Haskell performances I have seen, Any Given Saturday spurted well clear of Hard Spun and Curlin down the lane to win by more than four lengths. Curlin would be named Horse of the Year the next two years, but on that day it was Any Given Saturday.
And speaking of impressive performances, in 2009 it was Rachel Alexandra who continued the trend of horses I love winning the Haskell. In the race I still consider her greatest to date, Rachel dominated a fine field of colts by a whopping margin. Her win was one of the fastest Haskell’s ever, one of the largest winning margins, and came at the direct expense of soon to be male champion, Summer Bird.