News & Barn notes

Arabian Knight Installed As 5-2 Morning Line Favorite For Saturday’s $1 Million, Grade 1 Haskell Stakes

July 19, 2023

The highly-regarded but lightly-raced Arabian Knight will put his unblemished record on the line as the 5-2 morning line favorite in a field of eight talented sophomores in Saturday’s Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park following today’s post position draw.

Kentucky Derby winner Mage was made the 3-1 co-second choice along with fellow Grade 1 winner Tapit Trice in the 56th renewal of the Haskell, which is a “Win and You’re In” for the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita as part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series.

Arabian Knight, a son of champion Uncle Mo and a $2.3 million purchase by Zedan Racing Stables, will be making his third career start. He is trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, who is looking to add to his record nine Haskell wins.

“It’s exciting to win the Haskell. It’s a race where every year when I’m (evaluating) my 2-year-olds I always try to figure out who’s going to be my Haskell horse,” Baffert said by phone from his Southern California base. “The reason we’ve always been so successful there is because I always bring my best horses there. You need to do that if you’re going to win that race.”

Arabian Knight graduated from the maiden ranks with a dazzling gate-to-wire performance on the undercard of last November’s Breeders’ Cup, and for an encore made every pole a winning one in the 1 1/16 miles Southwest Stakes (Grade 3) at Oaklawn Park in his only other start on Jan. 28. The combined margin of victory was 12¾ lengths.

Hall of Fame ride John Velazquez has the mount.

“The layoff freshened him up,” said Baffert. “He’s doing really well. He’s pretty fit. I think he’s ready for the mile and an eighth and it’s going to be a tough race, but he’s trained well.”

Arabian Knight will break from the far outside in the eight-horse field. From the rail out, with jockeys and morning line odds, his competitors are: Geaux Rocket Ride (Mike Smith, 9-2); Awesome Strong (Jose Batista, 30-1); Salute the Stars (Joel Rosario, 8-1); Mage (Javier Castellano, 3-1); Tapit Trice (Luis Saez, 3-1); Howgreatisnate (Paco Lopez, 20-1); and Extra Anejo (Tyler Gaffalione, 5-1).

“I don’t particularly like the eight (post),” said Baffert. “I was hoping to be in the middle somewhere. The break is going to be important. It always is there. I feel good about the way he’s going into the race. Conditioning-wise, he’s ready for it.”

Ramiro Restrepo, a co-owner of the Kentucky Derby winner and third-place Preakness Stakes finisher last out, said he and trainer Gustavo Delgado are not concerned about Mage’s lack of favoritism, or the nine-week layoff.

“I believe the horse’s entire body of work and his entire career is what defines him. It’s not just one race,” Restrepo said. “He had a great break. It’s the start of the second half of his 3-year-old year. We feel he’s good enough to compete and put forth a quality effort. Hopefully, that’s good enough to get the job done and put forth a great performance and keep it moving.

“We’re happy we have a talented horse who’s feeling good, and we hope he’ll give a great account of himself Saturday.”

Toyota Blue Grass Stakes winner Tapit Trice exits a third-place finish in the Belmont Stakes on June 10. Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher said the son of Tapit, who has run at six different tracks, came out of the Belmont in excellent shape and is full of good energy.

“Post position five works well, He’s had a history of drawing inside so that works out well. It looks like there’s plenty of pace for him to run at,” said Pletcher, who is a three-time Haskell winner (Blue Grass Cat, 2006; Any Given Saturday, 2007; Verrazano, 2013).

Two-time Eclipse Award winner Brad Cox is back in the Haskell for the third straight year in his third overall appearance. Mandaloun, the adjudged Kentucky Derby winner, brought home the hardware in 2012 and Arkansas Derby winner Cyberknife added to his trophy case last year, setting a track and stakes record in the process.

Gary and Mary West’s Salute the Stars, a winner of the listed Pegasus Stakes here in his last start, will look to keep Cox’s Haskell record perfect. Cox took over his training in mid-winter, switched him from the turf to dirt, and the colt hasn’t lost since.

“Mandaloun and Cyberknife were more accomplished colts. But he acted like a good horse the day he walked into the barn. That’s only one exciting thing about him,” said Cox. “I don’t know if the fact he’s run over the track and won on it gives us an advantage, but it’s a plus. These are obviously very good horses we’re running against.  It’s definitely not a disadvantage.

“He definitely needs to step forward, but he hasn’t regressed one bit. This is a Grade 1 race with Grade 1 caliber horses. We’ll need him to move forward, and I think he will and can. I hope he can negotiate the first turn a little better and get a cleaner trip this time. He’s lightly raced, and once again, he’s had a race over the track. It’s not a negative. It’s only a positive.”

Extra Anejo, whom Winchell Thoroughbreds paid $1.35 million for as a yearling, will be making the class jump from the allowance ranks into Grade 1 company and against much more battle-seasoned competitors for the first time. Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen is brimming with confidence, nevertheless.

“I think this it’s the perfect spot for him,” said Asmussen. “We have built him up to this point and what a great opportunity it is for him. He is a very physically impressive horse, a horse who carries himself with a tremendous amount of confidence.

“He’s obviously stepping up into graded stakes company but he’s seen plenty of good company in the mornings and I feel that he is up to this.”

Asmussen, who trained the Horse of the Year three times in Curlin (2007-08) and 2009 Haskell winner Rachel Alexandra, has conditioned many champions for the Winchell Family and they include Untapable, 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner, and Echo Zulu. He had high praise for Extra Anejo.

“He’s been extremely obvious from day one. Winchell Thoroughbreds have had a lot of top quality horses and this is as excellent a prospect as any of them.” said Asmussen.

Asmussen was also delighted with the draw.

“Post seven is an excellent draw for him,” he said. “It’s a mile-and-an-eighth with eight runners and plenty of run to the first turn. There is a lot size to Extra Anejo. He’ll be able to hold whatever position (Luis) Saez has to have with him.”

Richard Mandella is one of the four Hall of Famers trainers contesting the Haskell.

Pin Oak Stud’s Geaux Rocket Ride, who was unraced as a juvenile and got knocked off the Kentucky Derby trail this spring by a fever, impressed when winning the June Affirmed Stakes last time out. The Haskell is his fourth career outing.

“He hasn’t raced that much, but he does everything so smart. I think he can handle this. I’m excited about running him in a race of this magnitude,” said Mandella, who won the 2000 Haskell with Dixie Union. “He’s a colt that’s done more than we’ve asked of him every time. We have a lot of high hopes.”

Geaux Rocket Ride drew the rail in what figures to shape up as a rider’s race. Hall of Famer Mike Smith will be at the reins for the first time.

“I’m just happy to be in there. He’s got good speed. So we’ll let him run out of there and then Mike will decide what to do after that,” said Mandella.

In Baffert’s assessment, “This is a very tough race and there are some good horses in there. You’ve got the Derby winner (Mage) and that will make it an exciting race. Extra Anejo is a superstar kind of horse. The (Brad Cox) horse that won the race before (the Pegasus prep) that got left (at the gate, Salute the Stars) is pretty impressive. Geaux Rocket Ride is another who’s a good horse and could win. I think they got a great field.

“You’re going to have to bring your ‘A’ game to win.”

In addition to the Haskell, which is the 12th of the 14 races on the card, the Grade 1, $600,000 United Nations Stake is also featured. The Grade 3, $500,000 Molly Pitcher, the Grade 3, $400,000 Monmouth Cup, and the Grade 3, $300,000 WinStar Matchmaker are the supporting graded stakes.