Hot Rod Charlie Favored In Haskell, But Midnight Bourbon Has A Shot

July 17 Monmouth race kicks off summer season for elite 3-year-old racehorses
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The post-Triple Crown summer season for 3-year-old racehorses begins in earnest this Saturday at Monmouth Park, with the annual running of the Grade 1 Haskell Stakes.

Hot Rod Charlie, a game runner-up to Essential Quality in the June 4 Belmont Stakes, is favored to top a talented, seven-horse field at morning-line odds of 6-5, with Mandaloun (2-1), Following Sea (3-1), and Midnight Bourbon (9-2) also warranting the backing of some sports bettors on the Jersey Shore.

If there’s a surprise on the morning line, it’s that Monmouth handicapper Brad Thomas has the relatively untested Following Sea at shorter odds than Midnight Bourbon, who finished second in the Preakness Stakes. America’s Best Racing recently published a nice breakdown of horses who typically win the Haskell. Among the keys: early speed and stamina in the pedigree, as well as Triple Crown, graded stakes and two-turn experience.

Following Sea is plenty fast and may well get to the lead in the 1-1/8 mile Haskell. But his parents were sprinters, albeit classy ones, and he’s never run longer than 6-1/2 furlongs in his three-race career. The Todd Pletcher trainee (who used to be a Bob Baffert trainee) seems like an obvious underlay here, yet Daily Racing Form scribe Marcus Hersh remains somewhat intrigued.

Calling the decision to run such a lightly raced horse in the Haskell “fascinating,” Hersh, who writes the DRF’s “Breakout Beyers” column, told NJ Online Gambling, “Following Sea from Pletcher is a really interesting entry. He’s as impressive as any of the horses I’ve written about for the column. He’s taking a huge move going two turns for the first time into this bunch, but I saw his last work at Belmont and he is a fabulous workhorse.”

As for Thomas, he explained that his decision had to do, in part, because Following Sea has posted a higher Beyer Speed Figure (100) than Midnight Bourbon (96).

“Speed figures, they really matter as far as betting is concerned,” said Thomas. “Bourbon has never run a legitimate Grade 1 speed figure in his career. It’s a matter of potential versus established form. Bourbon runs good races, but he’s relatively exposed. Following Sea oozes potential. This horse could truly be a superstar. It’s a combination of what he’s already done, albeit at a shorter distance, versus his potential, which is limitless. It’s fair to second-guess. I could have made them a little closer, but I consciously made the decision that Following Sea could really be a buzz horse. So I wanted to be sure to have him pegged to address that. But I could very well be wrong. That’s how the game is.”

Bullish on Bourbon

Hersh is higher on Midnight Bourbon. Alluding to a five-furlong workout at Churchill Downs in late June, which the Steve Asmussen trainee covered in 59 seconds and change, Hersh wrote that “Midnight Bourbon appeared to be merely breezing despite the fast clocking, and one can see why his connections have decided to take their shot in the Haskell.”

“Midnight Bourbon, his work two weeks ago — oh my God,” Hersh said over the phone. “He’s a big horse who’s coming into his frame. I think his Derby (where he finished sixth) is a toss and his Preakness is forgivable.”

In fact, when asked which horse he thought would emerge as the cream of the 3-year-old crop by the time November’s Breeders’ Cup rolls around, Hersh said, “[Belmont champ] Essential Quality has the right attributes. … I think Midnight Bourbon is going to have a good second half of the year.” (Essential Quality is expected to run in the Jim Dandy at Saratoga on July 31.)

As for Hot Rod Charlie, Hersh called him “a deserving favorite” in the Haskell, adding, “He looked like he was going to win the Kentucky Derby at the quarter pole (he wound up finishing third) and certainly validated his work in the Belmont. And I think if you revisit the Louisiana Derby and how fast he went on the lead, which is not his game, he has the look of a serious horse. I saw him work the other day and he worked really well.”

No whips, but fixed odds

Hersh seemed less enthusiastic about Kentucky Derby runner-up Mandaloun, who may yet be elevated to first in that race if Medina Spirit’s disqualification is upheld. In his first race since the Derby, the Brad Cox trainee won the Pegasus at Monmouth on June 13, but did so unimpressively. Hersh suspects that might have had something to do with the fact that jockeys are now prohibited from using whips at Monmouth — a recent rule change that PETA loves and riders tend to loathe.

“He’s run well in every race except for the Louisiana Derby. Nobody had any excuse for that,” observed Hersh. “And I don’t think he ran that well in the Pegasus. That was a bit of a concern. It may have been his immaturity that caught up with him and I think he’s been kind of an immature horse. There are no whips at Monmouth, and maybe he’s a horse that needs more encouragement than others.”

As for the eventual arrival of fixed-odds wagering at Monmouth. Hersh said he’s “looking forward to seeing the terminals” featuring fixed odds at Monmouth, but strikes a more balanced tone when asked about their place in horse racing at large.

“I’ve always wanted it, but you do have to understand the questions — proper handicappers who will take real bets, the purses for horsemen,” he said. “It’s a different model, so that has to be in play. If you’re talking about a fixed pool of money, you’re taking money away from parimutuel. Is racing, writ large, ready to accommodate that shift right now? The thing I’ve seen is you cannot get prices on horses anymore. There’s too much money with pools and with algorithmic betting.”

Here is the field for the 2021 Haskell Stakes, along with post position and morning-line odds:

  1. Following Sea, 3-1
  2. Antigravity, 30-1
  3. Mandaloun, 2-1
  4. Hot Rod Charlie, 6-5
  5. Pickin’ Time, 20-1
  6. Midnight Bourbon, 9-2
  7. Basso, 30-1

Photo of Midnight Bourbon by Pat McDonough/Courier Journal

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