Preakness champion Lookin At Lucky gallops with exercise rider Dana Barnes on Saturday on the track at Monmouth Park
OCEANPORT, N.J. - The Haskell Invitational never had it so good.
"This," beams Monmouth Park general manager Bob Kulina, "is the deepest field we've ever had."
No doubt, the $1 million Haskell not only helps kick off the second season for 3-year-olds following the grueling Triple Crown campaign, but the winner Sunday becomes the leader in thoroughbred racing's most popular division.
This star-studded field includes Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky and the runners-up from each race, Ice Box in the Derby and First Dude in the Preakness.
Add rising star Trappe Shot, improving Afleet Again and Uptowncharlybrown and the usual longshot in Our Dark Knight, and racing fans would be hard-pressed to find a comparable field.
"When you have the main players in a big race like this, that's so important in our industry," said Bob Baffert, the Hall of Fame trainer of Lookin At Lucky. "This is always a very exciting race, and it's never won by a bad horse."
The other leading 3-year-old, Belmont winner Drosselmeyer, is sidelined for the year with an ankle injury.
Baffert is pumped for what has become his annual trek from California to the Jersey Shore. Lookin At Lucky was the lukewarm 5-2 morning-line favorite as Baffert seeks a record fourth Haskell victory.
"I think they should have a huge crowd with the caliber of horses they have gathered up for this race," Baffert said. "I've always had a lot of success there, and I like going back to where we've had a lot of success."
Never before has a Derby winner and a Preakness winner run in the Haskell, so a little history will be made as well in the 43rd edition of Monmouth's showcase race.
Last year, Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra defeated Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird by six lengths, and the year before it was Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown rebounding from his Belmont loss in taking the Haskell.
The field for the 11/8-mile Haskell is so tough that the Derby winner is just the co-second choice.
After winning the Derby by 21/2 lengths on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs, Super Saver, with Calvin Borel aboard, finished eighth in the Preakness after tiring in the stretch at Pimlico.
The Haskell, though, is a chance for Super Saver to reassert himself.
"I do think he needs to run well, and we're very hopeful he will," said Elliott Walden, the racing manager for WinStar Farm, the owner and breeder of Super Saver.
He also dismisses the notion that the horse is being overlooked.
"We're excited about the opportunity that presents itself, but you know, the Derby is the Derby and I think he is the deserving winner," adds Walden. "Lookin At Lucky and Super Saver both won one, so it will be interesting to see what happens.
"We want Super Saver to be the 3-year-old champion, and I think the rest of the year is going to decide that. This is a high quality field, so we're going for the brass ring."