Kentucky Derby winner Mage returns in Haskell

Mage is victorious in the 2023 Kentucky Derby (Associated Press Photo)

By Jarrod Horak

Eight sophomore males take center stage in the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park on Saturday, July 22. Bob Baffert has won the Haskell a record 9 times and he is represented this year by undefeated colt Arabian Knight, the 5-2 morning line favorite.  

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Arabian Knight is probably the one to reel in from the outside post. He smartly wired the field in his extended sprint debut at Keeneland on the Breeders’ Cup Saturday undercard last fall. He stretched out and caught the slop in the Southwest (G3) in his second start on Jan. 28, and he went straight to the front and was never seriously threatened in a comfortable 5 1/2 length tally under John Velazquez. He was under serious consideration for the Kentucky Derby after that victory but they opted not to rush him and decided to point to a summer and fall campaign. He has been in steady training since late May and shows a pair of six panel bullets for this engagement. 

Mage was the best closer in the Kentucky Derby. He got a great ride and trip, and the pace meltdown on the first Saturday in May certainly helped his cause. He returned two weeks later in the Preakness and the pace was dawdling. National Treasure was just cruising along up front and Mage stalked from third and had no answer in the stretch in an even show finish. That was his fifth race of the season and he definitely deserved a bit of a break. They circled the Travers as his main summer goal and they are using this $1 million event as a prep for the Mid-Summer Derby. 

Tapit Trice is the only 2-time graded stakes winner in the Haskell lineup. He won the Tampa Bay Derby (G3) in March and the Grade 1 Blue Grass in April. He stubbed his toe in the Kentucky Derby and bounced back with a wide show finish in the Belmont Stakes. He just missed the place by a nose in the latter event and has been training well in advance of this race. He is not the best gate horse and needs to avoid a slow beginning. 

Geaux Rocket Ride wired the field in his dirt sprint debut at Santa Anita in January. He chased the pace and finish second as the beaten favorite in the San Felipe (G2) second time out, and he got sick after that. He resurfaced in the listed Affirmed Stakes on June 4 and kicked away from his four overmatched rivals. Richard Mandella’s lightly raced $350k purchase figures to save ground stalking the pace under Mike Smith. 

Salute the Stars raced on turf in his two juvenile outings and he graduated at Kentucky Downs for trainer John Ortiz last summer. He moved to the Brad Cox barn this year and gamely prevailed in a race originally scheduled for turf on May 14. The Pegasus Stakes was next, and that local prep for the Haskell featured LA Derby (G2) hero Kingsbarns. The latter pressed the pace and looked like a winner in the stretch but Salute the Stars found his best stride late and got up to win by a neck. He was rank early in the Pegasus and needs to show more professionalism in this deep Grade 1 contest. 

Extra Anejo won for fun in his extended sprint debut at Keeneland last fall. Kentucky Derby buzz was all around him after that facile victory but he was taken out of training because of an ankle injury. He returned in a 6 1/2 furlong sprint on the Kentucky Derby undercard and did not have the best start from the inside post and settled for the place. Steve Asmussen let him stretch his legs in a flat mile affair at Ellis Park on June 10 and he stalked from second and pulled well clear in a dominating performance. The $1.35 million purchase is the only main contender without stakes experience. 

Howgreatisnate won all four of his starts as a juvenile including a minor stakes race at Parx in December. He stumbled at the start and tossed the rider in the Gotham (G3), and chased and weakened in the Private Terms. He moved to the Elizabeth Dobles barn after that and he ran well in his last two stakes starts at Monmouth Park. He fought hard and prevailed by head in the Long Branch on May 13 and stalked the pace and just landed the show in the Pegasus. He seems a cut or two below the top contenders in this race. 

Awesome Strong rounds out the field and is the 30-1 outsider. He went 4-for-4 as a juvenile and he swept all three races in the Florida Sire Series. He made his first start as a 3-year-old in an optional claiming sprint at Delaware Park on June 14 and he chased and weakened as the beaten favorite. He fired a local bullet on July 14 but seemingly needs an easier spot. 

Arabian Knight is the one to beat and a wire-to-wire victory is probably the most likely outcome, but proven class means something and Mage and Tapit Trice are formidable foes on paper. Three others have credentials to win this race as well and it should be an exciting renewal of the Haskell, which goes as the 12th race at Monmouth with a scheduled post time of 5:45PM EDT. I will be back later today with a recap.  

Grade 1 Haskell at Monmouth Park

1 – Geaux Rocket Ride (9-2)

2 – Awesome Strong (30-1)

3 – Salute the Stars (8-1)

4 – Mage (3-1)

5 – Tapit Trice (3-1)

6 – Howgreatisnate (20-1)

7 – Extra Anejo (5-1)

8 – Arabian Knight (5-2)