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American Freedom Can Extend Baffert Success in Haskell Stakes

American Freedom Can Extend Baffert Success in Haskell Stakes by Reinier Macatangay: Trainer Bob Baffert likes certain racetracks and stakes races very much, almost in a similar fashion to how the legendary golfer Tiger Woods always preferred specific golf courses. At Monmouth Park on Sunday, Baffert starts American Freedom in a race he has dominated for most of the decade, the $1 million Haskell Stakes (GI).


If American Freedom wins the Haskell, he will vault himself near the top. He will need to be on his “A” game, as the field contains Kentucky Derby (GI) champion Nyquist and Preakness Stakes (GI) winner Exaggerator.

Owned by Gary and Mary West, American Freedom has earned a 4-3-0-0 record so far, with his only loss coming at Churchill Downs in the Pat Day Mile (GIII). His two stakes wins came in the ungraded Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico, and the Iowa Derby (GIII) at Prairie Meadows. At 1 1/8 miles, the Haskell will be the longest race of his career.

Now is the right time to step up and take down the division leaders.

If American Freedom wins, he will vault himself near the top. He will need to be on his “A” game, as the field contains Kentucky Derby (GI) champion Nyquist and Preakness Stakes (GI) winner Exaggerator.

In contrast, the Iowa Derby attracted weaker horses such as Texas Chrome and Hint of Roses, who would both run at double-digit odds in a spot like this.

At least when American Freedom won the race at Pimlico, it had known names like future Pegasus Stakes (GIII) winner Donegal Moon and Dazzling Gem. Plus, runner-up Voluntario returned to win an optional claimer.

Three starts ago, when American Freedom could only manage sixth in the Pat Day Mile, supporters can blame a weird race for the result. Sharp Azteca lasted through six furlongs in 1:08 and change for a one-mile race, yet kept going and won! Furthermore, it would be unreasonable to expect any horse to never throw in a clunker.

As a son of Pulpit and a Pleasant Tap mare, the distance should prove no problem. Baffert obviously knows how to win this race, and he would not bring American Freedom over without a certain degree of confidence.

According to the Del Mar Stable Notes, he credits his past Haskell success to good horses.

“I’ve done really well in that race, because I’ve had some really good horses to run in it,” Baffert said.

So, no magic tricks are involved. Baffert has entered a good horse who will be piloted by Rafael Bejarano. Even Nyquist and Exaggerator connections should realize the race is more wide open than their star runners.

Nyquist heads into this race rested, as the Doug O’Neill-trained colt was forced to skip the Belmont Stakes (GI) when their charge suffered a fever after finishing third in the Preakness.

Before the disappointing Preakness result, Nyquist quietly built an 8 for 8 record, which included wins in the Florida Derby (GI) and San Vicente Stakes (GII) this year, in addition to the Kentucky Derby. If people want an excuse for his Preakness effort, the pace was brutal and Nyquist did okay to hang on for a share.

While Exaggerator won, Nyquist had to battle a bent-on-the-lead Uncle Lino and a couple of other speed horses. All Exaggerator had to do was settle off the pace and strike when the leaders became tired.

Fortunately for Exaggerator, a similar scenario could happen. Even though only six horses are present, five of them enjoy displaying speed. What should concern bettors though is the last-minute switch into this race, after they supposedly skipped the Jim Dandy Stakes (GII) at Saratoga Race Course because of a poor workout.

Read trainer Keith Desormeaux’s comments on TDN just one week earlier:

“ … I might skip the Jim Dandy, because he didn’t finish with the vigor I wanted to see. I would rate today’s work a C or a C-plus.”

Desormeaux must have ended up blaming the surface poor workout, and the weather forecast possibly influenced his decision as well. A Google search indicates there is decent chance of rain at Monmouth Park on Sunday (Exaggerator loves a muddy surface).

Sunny Ridge, Gun Runner and Awesome Slew are in this lineup too, and most would view Sunny Ridge as a significant upset even though he once came close to defeating Exaggerator at Delta Downs last year. Fans remember Gun Runner’s game effort in the Kentucky Derby where he finished third, and he should attract money.

Fans love an open-ended Grade I race featuring nothing but quality horses, and this edition of the Haskell fits the category. Pick a horse or two and commit to the selection, but also realize American Freedom is moving up the ladder and the connections will want to prove their horse belongs up there by winning.

Haskell Invitational Stakes 2016 Post Positions & Odds
Race 12 5:47 pm ET
1 Nyquist 6-5 Gutierrez/O’Neill
2 Sunny Ridge 20-1 Juarez/Servis
3 Awesome Slew 15-1 Lopez/Plesa, Jr.
4 Gun Runner 4-1 Geroux/Asmussen
5 American Freedom 3-1 Bejarano/Baffert
6 Exaggerator 5-2 Desormeaux/Desormeaux