Saturday’s Jim Dandy (G2) and Sunday’s Haskell (G1) kick off the second half of the three year-old season and also provide a great proving ground. These two premier stakes races seem to set up as contests between some of the horses that competed in the Kentucky Derby and the late bloomers to the major stakes scene. With the retirement of I’ll Have Another and Union Rags, and Bodemeister missing these two races because of a fever, leadership among the sophomore runners is up for grabs.
The Jim Dandy provides the first opportunity for the Kentucky Derby runners Alpha, Liaison, and Prospective to regain some of their early season glory. Alpha’s trainer Kiaran McLaughlin has been targeting the Saratoga three year-old events since his horse had to miss the Belmont Stakes when he spiked a fever. Remember that the Godolphin runner was extremely popular with the public as he impressively won the Count Fleet and the Withers at very short odds. Alpha then lost his battle with the undefeated Gemologist in the Wood Memorial by a neck. Since his 12th place finish in the Derby, Alpha has been training sharply with two top workouts on the Oklahoma Training track.
Bob Baffert’s entry of Liaison in the Travers prep race was a bit of a surprise. Liaison is winless in 2012, but his last races at Hollywood Park produced big Beyer Speed Figures. Off the pace runs in the Swaps (G2) and the Affirmed (G3) got him second and third place finishes and Liaison did run a very respectable sixth in the Derby. Martin Garcia is flying in to ride this Indian Charlie colt after working him in a typical Baffert six furlong breeze of 1:12-2. Prospective disappointed trainer Mark Casse in the Blue Grass and the Derby, but he has bounced back with two stakes wins. Prospective took a Woodbine takes race on the polytrack and then won the Ohio Derby (G3).
The Jim Dandy is a wide-open contest and Michael Matz, the trainer of Teeth of the Dog agrees, “With I’ll Have Another, Bodemeister and Union Rags not being around, that leaves the door open for one of them. There’s not one horse that’s a standout going into the race.” Will Liaison or Neck ‘n Neck run back to their last race 102 speed figures or will Alpha or Teeth of the Dog come up big as maturing three year-olds? I am going to make Alpha my pick to win the Jim Dandy and give the Kentucky Derby horses a victory in this battle of the early stars versus the late bloomers.
The last minute addition of Gemologist to the Haskell added a great deal of pizzazz to first grade one event for three year-old males since the Belmont Stakes. I think it also recognizes what a contentious race the Jim Dandy turned out to be. Interestingly, the three horses that ran in Triple Crown races are the top three choices in the Haskell morning line. The veteran runners seem to be getting the nod over the late bloomers in the Haskell. Both Doug O’Neill and Jerry Hollendorfer described their horses as “underachievers”. I am far more confident that I have a winner from the veteran duo of Gemologist and Dullahan. I am a huge fan of Bob Baffert and I would love to see him win his third Haskell in a row, but Paynter is going to have a lot of trouble filling the capable shoes of Bodemeister. Paynter has only won a maiden and an allowance race in his career and don’t forget that his second place in the Belmont was in an extremely slow time.
Gemologist won his first five races including his courageous win in the Wood Memorial. He finished a very disappointing 16th place in the Derby, but a foot bruise was discovered after the race. Everyone likes to bash trainer Todd Pletcher by saying that his horses are only successful early in their careers. Keep in mind that the Pletcher won two Haskells in a row for Gemologist’s owner, WinStar Farm, in 2006 and 2007 with Bluegrass Cat and Any Given Sunday. Gemologist blazed his last workout in :58.4 while running against an older stakes winner. Gemologist is going to love the Monmouth racing surface and is primed to run a very big race.
Dullahan remained in Kentucky to train at Churchill Downs after his very disappointing run in the Belmont. Trainer Dale Romans explained why he committed to run in the Haskell very early on, “The track at Monmouth is not as near as deep, sandy, and cuppy as Belmont. The track at Monmouth is a lot more like the one at Churchill, and he likes that one.” This running of the Haskell seems to have plenty of early pace to set up Dullahan’s big closing run. If Dale Romans is willing to give his horse another chance on the right dirt surface then so am I.
In the battle of the Derby runners against the late bloomers, I am picking Alpha in the Jim Dandy. In the Haskell Gemologist and Dullahan will take the top two spots. Regardless Saturday and Sunday set up to be a great weekend of racing for the three year-olds.
I love this weekend, Matt. No matter what the calendar says, Haskell/Jim Dandy weekend is the true beginning to racing’s second season. We have now begun the road to the Breeders’ Cup, and in racing’s glamour division of the 3yo males, it’s time to see who is ready for a big autumn. As you’ve noted, with the biggest names from the Kentucky Derby gone, I am fully expecting the late bloomers to exert their newfound superiority over the First Saturday in May also-rans.
In the Jim Dandy, I feel like Alpha and Liaison have already had their fair share of chances on the biggest stages, most notably the Kentucky Derby, with little success. Of the pair, I do fear Alpha more, as he has a lot in common to last year’s winner, Stay Thirsty, but judging from the last pair of races from late bloomers, Neck ‘n Neck, Teeth of the Dog, and Fast Falcon, I think Alpha and Liaison are destined to fall short once again. Of the triumvirate, I like the horse who appears the sharpest of all, and that’s the Ian Wilkes trained Neck ‘n Neck.
While I think Prospective has proven to be not good enough, Neck ‘n Neck is another story. He was not ready for the big time this spring. While he showed promise, and was somewhat competitive in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, the “other Flower Alley” needed time to develop and mature. Rather than catching Derby fever, Wilkes backed off a bit and opted for a solid allowance race a week after the 20-horse happening. The strategy is clearly paying off. After a romp in that race, Neck ‘n Neck was given more than five weeks before taking on the (G3) Matt Winn Stakes also at Churchill Downs. Dominating his stakes competition by 7 ¼ lengths, Neck ‘n Neck is now a tractable horse still getting better, full of confidence, and one of the few sophomores in the nation to pair up 100+ Beyer’s. The fact that he is undefeated with rider Leandro Goncalves, doesn’t hurt a bit either.
If my top pick cannot handle the bright lights of Saratoga, I’ll take my chances with a pair of up-and-comers who have finished 1-2 in consecutive stakes races at Belmont. Teeth of the Dog is one of those rare horses that seems to get better with each and every start. After impressively winning the Easy Goer Stakes on Belmont Day, he showed true grit in gamely fighting off a big challenge in the (G2) Dwyer Stakes. The horse he held off that day, Fast Falcon, is the most lightly raced horse in the field. He is very well bred for trainer, Nick Zito, and has displayed marked improvement of late, including that bang-up performance in the Dwyer.
While I am not ready to jump on the bandwagon of the I’ll Have Another connections’ horse, Handsome Mike, just yet, I am a big believer in the potential of the other “underachiever” in Nonios. I’ve followed this one since our colleague Don August wrote about him back in March. Classically bred, the son of the Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Pleasantly Perfect has the ideal late bloomer look to me. He has done nothing but run well in each of his first five races. His only two losses came to Hudson Landing, a top older horse in the Bay Area, and to the moderate pace set by Blueskiesnrainbows last time in the (G2) Swaps. It was a strong performance just to get within less than a length at the wire, and one that should set him up perfectly for a run in the Haskell. He has never run on dirt, but I think with that breeding, the first-time on dirt is an angle I like. I expect the Haskell to be day 1 of bigger and better things to come for the horse I consider to have the most upside of anyone running this weekend.
Gemologist does scare me more than any of the other Derby horses running this weekend, as the Wood Memorial winner is working lights out for his return, but I will take a stand against him in his first race back in nearly three months. On the other hand, Paynter came along later and ran a big race in the Belmont Stakes. Always extremely well thought of, the son of Awesome Again displayed his talent wen running a huge race, all things considered, in the Santa Anita Derby with only a 5 ½ furlong debut race on his past performances. While the Belmont may not have been fast, it did reaffirm what kind of potential this late bloomer has.
For sake of transparency, I must admit that Dullahan was my pick for the Kentucky Derby this year. While he did run well that day, he came back to disappoint in the Belmont. Generally I steer clear of horses who tried to rally in the 1 ½ mile Belmont in their next start. The feeling being there is a level of dullness after such an effort. Couple that with the fact that few Haskell Invitaitonals have been won by true closers, and I feel good in discounting Dullahan’s chances on Sunday.
I just don’t see the Derby also-rans doing it, Matt. It’s time for the changing of the guard, and horses like Nonios, Paynter, Neck ‘n Neck, Teeth of the Dog and Fast Falcon are primed and ready to take this division into late summer and the fall with renewed optimism.