Flashback: Remembering 3 unforgettable Haskell runnings

By Keeler Johnson, Special to HRN
July 16, 2019 09:01am

The Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park is a relatively young race, having been run for the first time under its current conditions in 1981. But with 38 renewals in the history books, the Haskell has already produced a handful of unforgettable racing moments, the kind that imprint forever in the minds of racing fans.

Ahead of Saturday's renewal, let’s take a trip down memory lane and recall three of the most memorable Haskells ever run:

Bet Twice Edges Alysheba

The 1987 Haskell Invitational was a tale of two trips; an illustration of how good setups and bad setups can affect the outcome of a race.

The Haskell was billed as a three-horse showdown among Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Alysheba, his Belmont Stakes conqueror Bet Twice, and the upstart Lost Code, winner of four straight graded stakes events against easier company.

But you can argue the race wasn’t a fair fight, as Alysheba’s journey was a mess from start to finish. He was squeezed out of position while traveling down the stretch for the first time, then was bounced around between horses heading into the first turn. After settling inside down the backstretch, Alysheba had to wait in traffic at a key moment on the far turn, losing ground and momentum.
 Worse yet, when a path inside failed to open sufficiently, Alysheba was forced to abruptly shift to the far outside, costing him even more momentum.

In the meantime, Bet Twice enjoyed a clear run stalking Lost Code through solid fractions of :23 3/5, :46 3/5, and 1:09 3/5. After tenaciously reeling in the front-runner, Bet Twice was challenged late in the race by Alysheba, who was rallying resolutely after finally finding a clear path. But the Derby winner’s run came up a neck short as Bet Twice hit the wire in 1:47 flat, establishing a stakes record which stands to this day. Lost Code finished another neck behind Alysheba in third place, with a gap of a dozen lengths back to the rest.

Suffice to say, the 1987 Haskell Invitational lived up to its billing and provided a thrilling finish between the three established stars. But while Bet Twice won the day, there will always be racing fans who believe Alysheba was the best horse.

“After viewing the films on the Haskell, many will say [Alysheba was] the best horse,” wrote Russ Harris in the August 2, 1987 edition of the New York
Daily News.

Alysheba’s trainer, Jack Van Berg, agreed. “If he had been on the outside, he would have won,” said Van Berg. “I still think he’s the best colt in the country."

In the end, Van Berg was correct. A subsequent victory in the Super Derby (G1) and a runner-up effort in the Breeders’ Cup Classic helped establish Alysheba as the champion three-year-old male of 1987, and the following year, he won six Grade 1 races en route to Horse of the Year honors.

Rachel Alexandra Crushes Summer Bird

By the time Rachel Alexandra arrived at Monmouth Park for the 2009 Haskell Invitational, she had already established her reputation as an unstoppable superstar. That’s what happens when you sandwich victories in the Kentucky Oaks (by 20 ¼ lengths) and the Mother Goose Stakes (by 19 ¼ lengths) around a victory over males in the Preakness Stakes.

With regular rider Calvin Borel in the saddle for trainer Steve Asmussen, Rachel Alexandra was favored at 1-2 to defeat six male rivals in the Haskell. Never mind that her opposition included the Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird and the accomplished sprinter Munnings. Rachel Alexandra was fully expected to trounce her rivals.

And did she ever deliver. After pushing Munnings through fast fractions of :22.99, :46.43, and 1:09.92 over a sloppy, sealed track, fans could have been forgiven for thinking “Rachel” was setting too ambitious of a pace. But Calvin Borel wasn’t worried.

“She was going at a good clip and had her ears pricked,” explained Calvin Borel in the August 8, 2009 edition of
The Blood-Horse magazine. “When she does that she’s so relaxed, she’s automatic. I was just watching her ears.”

Approaching the top of the stretch, Rachel Alexandra seized command and powered away with complete authority, eventually crossing the wire six lengths in front. Summer Bird, the distant runner-up, tried to challenge on the far turn but was never a match for the fantastic filly, whose winning time of 1:47.21 fell just short of Bet Twice’s stakes record.

“This filly is just unbelievable,” continued Borel in
The Blood-Horse. “I can’t say how good she is, because I don’t know. I really didn’t ask her for much run. We have not gotten to the bottom of her, that’s for sure. She’s an amazing athlete…”

“It’s just beautiful to watch such a tremendous talent,” added Asmussen. “You see her in the paddock and on the track. Nothing seems beyond her. It’s not lightning in a bottle; that’s just who she is. The way she acts, the way she looks… Wow!”

American Pharoah Cruises Home

The Haskell Invitational has been won by plenty of champion horses through the years, but arguably none arrived with a greater reputation than American Pharoah, who ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought with his sweep of the 2015 Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes.

Two months after his heroics at Belmont Park, American Pharoah returned to action in the Haskell, a development which saw a record crowd of 60,983 turn out to cheer on the champion.

“The crowd was insane,” marveled Baffert in
The Blood-Horse magazine of August 8, 2015. “They were so loud. They were as loud as [the crowd at the Belmont Stakes].”

The volume of the massive audience was understandable, because American Pharoah put on a show. Much like Rachel Alexandra, he was content to press quick fractions of :23.22, :46.14, and 1:09.60 before effortlessly taking command on the far turn. Without any particular urging at all, American Pharoah flew to a five-length lead at the eighth pole before cruising across the wire eased up by 2 ¼ lengths, stopping the clock in 1:47.95.

“I watch as a fan and I wonder, ‘Where did [American Pharoah] come from?’“ Baffert continued in
The Blood-Horse. “I’ve had some really nice horses over the years, but what he does is just incredible.”

It was a display of pure talent and dominance by one of the greatest horses of the young century.

J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, videographer, handicapper and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. You can follow him on Twitter at @J_Keelerman.


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