Bob Baffert has previously trained nine horses to victory in the Haskell Stakes, but if he wins New Jersey’s biggest thoroughbred race this Saturday, it may come with mixed emotions from racing fans.
Much has changed since Baffert last won the Haskell in 2020, when Authentic scored the victory before a virtually empty Monmouth Park at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the following nine months, Baffert would win the rescheduled 2020 Kentucky Derby that September with Authentic, then claim the Run for the Roses the following May with Medina Spirit.
Then came the scandal that forever branded the two-time Triple Crown-winning Hall of Fame trainer, when Medina Spirit tested positive post-Derby for a banned substance. It wasn’t the first time Baffert ran afoul with racing stewards in America for such infractions, and it ultimately led to Medina Spirit being disqualified as Kentucky Derby winner — and Baffert being barred from the Triple Crown racing circuits.
But slowly, Baffert’s coming out from under the cloud of controversy, and is back training horses after his suspension at Santa Anita Park was lifted on July 2. While he’s still persona non grata at NYRA tracks through January, and Churchill Downs through next year (pending litigation), he’ll enter Taiba in this Saturday’s Haskell Stakes.
Usually, the Haskell winner is pointed for the Travers Stakes, but if Taiba does come out on top in the Haskell, that won’t be possible unless his connections transfer the colt to another trainer’s care.
One thing that is guaranteed is that whoever wins the Haskell earns an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic this November in Keeneland. And Baffert sounds confident that Taiba is ready to run big after a disappointing 12th place effort in the Kentucky Derby.
“I hope this guy fits the same kind of type of horse that I’ve been bringing up there,” Baffert said at the post position draw Wednesday afternoon regarding Taiba, and Baffert’s personal pursuit of a record 10th Haskell win. “We know he’s very talented. He’s lightly raced. I feel he’s doing well, and it’s gonna be a good race.”
The Kentucky Derby was only Taiba’s third career start. After breaking his maiden in February at Santa Anita Park, owners Zedan Racing Stables transferred the colt from Baffert to Tim Yakteen for a chance at winning a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate with a first- or second-place effort in the Santa Anita Derby that April.
The gambit worked, as Taiba wowed racing fans with a dominant victory in California’s biggest Kentucky Derby prep race over the favored Messier. But the young colt got caught in the Kentucky Derby stampede, Baffert said in an interview with Monmouth Park, resulting in disappointment on the first Saturday in May.
Now back in Baffert’s barn, Taiba has a chance to recapture the glory in the Haskell, as will Baffert himself.
The fans will likely cheer Taiba if he puts in a great effort Sunday. How they’ll react to Baffert being back in the winner’s circle might be a different story.
The Haskell Stakes
Saturday, July 23
Monmouth Park, Oceanport, NJ
Distance: 1 ⅛ Miles
Conditions: 3-year-old colts and geldings
Purse: $1 million
TV: CNBC, 5-6 p.m.
Beyond Baffert and Taiba, the Haskell Stakes field is coming up both strong and rather intriguing.
The field includes Cyberknife, who won the Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs in June for trainer Brad Cox; White Abarrio, second place in the Ohio Derby last out for trainer Saffie Joseph Jr.; and Jack Christopher, the winner of the Woody Stephens Stakes at Belmont Park in June for trainer Chad Brown.
The lightly-raced Jack Christopher has never lost in his four career starts. His two starts this year were simply brilliant, winning the Pat Day Mile on the Kentucky Derby undercard and the Woody Stephens on the Belmont Stakes undercard by open lengths.
But the Haskell is Jack Christopher’s biggest test yet. It’ll be his first start beyond one mile and around two turns. And his pedigree — by sprinter Munnings out of a Half Ours mare — suggests that he could be at his best in a sprint or a one-turn mile, rather than a route.
On the other hand, Jack Christopher stalked a hot pace in both races and took off in the stretch without much urging — a potential signal that he could run further. He was especially dominant in the Woody Stephens, getting a Beyer speed figure of 107 — the fastest earned by any horse in the Haskell field.
Jack Christopher is the fastest horse in the Haskell field; the only question is whether he’s got the stamina to go the distance. Taiba and White Abarrio are also good stalkers, so they both will likely factor in the opening pace.
If the pace completely falls apart, however, Cyberknife might be there at the end picking up the pieces — and the Haskell trophy.
Our picks: Jack Christopher, Taiba, Cyberknife