The spotlight at Saratoga Race Course will turn to the 3-year-old colts next weekend with the Grade II Jim Dandy, but in the meantime, the division takes center stage in New Jersey on Saturday for the $1 million Grade I Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.
The race drew eight horses, and the two most lightly raced horses in the field, the Chad Brown-trained Jack Christopher and the Bob Baffert-trained Taiba, are nearly co-favorites on the morning line.
Jack Christopher (3-2) is undefeated from four starts and will be racing longer than a mile for the first time in the nine-furlong Haskell, and 7-5 favorite Taiba has run just three times and is coming off a 12th in the Kentucky Derby out of Tim Yakteen’s barn while Baffert was serving a suspension.
Baffert is still suspended in New York and at Churchill Downs for a drug positive that led to Medina Spirit’s disqualification from first place in the 2021 Kentucky Derby, but not in New Jersey. His 90-day suspension by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which was honored by all racing jurisdictions, expired on July 2.
Jack Christopher did not run in any of the Triple Crown legs, but raced on the same card as two of them, the May 7 Kentucky Derby and June 11 Belmont Stakes.
He was impressive both times, winning the Grade I Pat Day Mile by 3 3-4 lengths and the Grade I Woody Stephens by 10 lengths.
All four of his career races have been around one turn.
“I’m fairly confident in the horse,” Brown said Friday morning. “He gives me every belief he’ll be able to get around two turns fine. Just the way he carries himself and moves in his works and all of his races leads me to believe he’ll be fine around two turns.”
The field for the Haskell, in post position order with odds, will be: Arkansas Derby and Matt Winn winner Cyberknife (6-1); Taiba (7-5); One Time Willard (30-1); Howling Time (10-1); King of Hollywood (30-1); Florida Derby winner White Abarrio (5-1); Jack Christopher (3-2); Benevengo (20-1).
Besides Taiba, Cyberknife (18th) and White Abarrio (16th) ran in the Kentucky Derby.
Jose Ortiz will travel from Saratoga to Oceanport, New Jersey, to ride Jack Christopher.
“I’m just going to let Jose determine, off the break, what to do,” Brown said. “I like the post, and obviously he’s got a lot of speed, so we’ll just play the break and see.”
Asked what he’d need to see from Jack Christopher in the Haskell to justify a shot at the mile-and-a-quarter Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 27, Brown said, “One race at a time. We’ll see how he handles a mile and an eighth, I think, is the fair answer.”
The Haskell distance isn’t a concern for Baffert, after Taiba won the Santa Anita Derby at a mile and an eighth.
The son of Gun Runner was purchased for $1.7 million at the 2021 Fasig-Tipton Florida 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale for Amr Zedan, who also owned Medina Spirit.
“I would have liked an extra week with him,” Baffert told the Monmouth Park media office on Wednesday after the post-position draw.
“But he’s doing really well. He has speed and he doesn’t get tired. The two turns won’t be a problem for him. The Kentucky Derby was a tall order for him. I don’t know what happened in the Derby. I wasn’t around. The Haskell is a great race and there are some really good horses in here. I hope the horse shows up.”
Baffert has won the Haskell a record nine times, most recently in 2020 with Authentic.
“I don’t think about records,” he said. “I just think about sending a good horse there, and I’ve sent some really great ones. I hope this guy is the same type of horse I’ve been bringing up there. We know he’s very talented.”
“We know he’s lightly raced, but I feel he’s doing really well. I wanted to watch him train. I wasn’t really convinced he was going to the Haskell. He breezed really well. He’s a big, strong heavy horse who won’t light it up in the mornings, but I was surprised what he did first out [to breeze]. I let him dictate if he was ready or not. I wasn’t going to throw him into the deep end of the pool.”