By Jarrod Horak
Richard Mandella means business when he ships a horse to Monmouth Park for their marquee race. He previously won the Haskell in 2000 with Dixie Union. This year, his lightly raced California invader Geaux Rocket Ride stalked the pace and spurted away from Kentucky Derby hero Mage and Bob Baffert’s highly regarded post time favorite Arabian Knight to win the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Stakes on Saturday, July 22 at Monmouth Park.
Awesome Strong, the longest shot on the board at 61-1, got to the front through an opening quarter in 22.80 but his bomber dreams were crushed early. Arabian Knight pressed from the outside post and quickly overtook the brief early leader through a half in 47.11. Salute the Stars, the Pegasus Stakes winner, took a good bit of wagering action. He was 8-1 on the morning line and went off at 9-2. Unfortunately for him, he was rank while chasing the pace along the inside and did not settle in this tough spot. He faded out of contention. Geaux Rocket Ride broke from the rail under Mike Smith and moved outside and found a good stalking spot.
Arabian Knight was still in front after six panels in 1:11.65 but he never really got a breather. Howgreatisnate slipped through along the inside to challenge him but he could not keep it together. Geaux Rocket Ride was the biggest danger at this stage, and he came alive under Mike Smith’s deft handling. He kept him in the clear throughout and he came up to engage Arabian Knight around the far turn.
Geaux Rocket Ride struck the front and Mage was getting in gear from off the pace. It briefly looked like the Derby winner would go on by but Mandella’s colt had something left and turned back the classy Grade 1 winner and scored by 1 3/4 lengths. Mage was clearly second best and Arabian Knight never stopped trying after the top two got past him. He dug in gamely and was best of the rest in third. Extra Anejo raced wide and split the field, and Tapit Trice was clear of the rest in fifth. Howgreatisnate and Salute the Stars were next, and it was a long way back to Awesome Strong.
The final time was 1:49.52 and Geaux Rocket Ride is now 3-for-4 with a runner-up finish in his brief career. He was 9-2 on the morning line but drifted up to 12-1 and paid a generous $27.40 to win. This was a Win and You’re In for the BC Classic and I am sure Richard Mandella is trying to figure out the best way to get his promising Candy Ride colt to that race in peak condition. The Breeders’ Cup will be held at Santa Anita later this fall and that is his home track. He is clearly on the upswing and his best races are probably in front of him.
Mage’s connections have to be thrilled with his effort. They were using this race as a prep for the Grade 1 Travers and he did everything right. He stayed within hailing distance of the early leaders and his rider Javier Castellano followed Geaux Rocket Ride when he made his winning move. He tried to go with the winner in the lane but had to settle for a runner-up finish. This was a perfect prep for the Mid-Summer Derby and he is already a Grade 1 winner at a mile and a quarter.
Arabian Knight ran super in his first start since January, and this was just his third career start. This was the first time he was headed early and that did not seem to both him. He cruised up nicely in the early going under John Velazquez, and when Geaux Rocket Ride and Mage went past him around the final turn, he seemed to fight even harder and still had a nice stride past the finish line. He was not losing any more ground in the late stages and was a clear third.
This may have been the most pleasing of the graded sophomore dirt route events this year. The top three finishers all ran quality races and I can see each of them making a big impact the rest of the year.