A Haskell to Remember… In Many Ways

There are so many elements that made up this year’s Haskell Invitational, including the hot topic of the Monmouth whip rule. You won’t find much about that here. This is about the horses involved, especially one who has gotten overlooked. ~ Steve Haskin

A Haskell to Remember… In Many Ways

By Steve Haskin

Sometimes the spirit and the true essence of the Thoroughbred are manifested in unusual ways. They don’t necessarily have to be displayed in victory or even narrow defeat. In the case of the 2021 Haskell Invitational, many of the elements that stamp the Thoroughbred were played out in the stretch run of Monmouth Park’s premier event.

Those elements, especially one, may have gotten lost amidst the social media backlash from the near-tragic accident that occurred inside the eighth pole and the vilification of Monmouth’s controversial whip rule.

The Haskell was running true to form when the three standouts – Hot Rod Charlie, Mandaloun, and Midnight Bourbon – hooked up turning for home. But then came every racegoer’s nightmare. In a flash, Midnight Bourbon appeared to fall to the ground, his legs giving out as if he had suffered a catastrophic injury. Many of those watching on TV immediately turned away, unable to look. Jockey Paco Lopez lay motionless on the track almost in a fetal position as the ambulance rushed to him. The battle between between Hot Rod Charlie and Mandaloun seemed almost insignificant as most people cringed in disgust. Racing seemingly had suffered a serious wound on national TV from which it might not recover.

But we all know what happened after that. The first sigh of relief came when Midnight Bourbon was seen running free and in no apparent distress. How did that happen when most people were convinced he had fallen and suffered a possible life-threatening injury? But it happened so quickly and so many people had turned away they didn’t realize that somehow the horse never went down and that he in all likelihood clipped the heels of Hot Rod Charlie.

After that it was all about the condition of Lopez and then the actual finish of the race, in which Hot Rod Charlie narrowly prevailed after a heated stretch duel. With the connections of Hot Rod Charlie still celebrating, the inquiry sign went up and it took only a brief look for the stewards to disqualify Hot Rod Charlie for drifting in right in front of Midnight Bourbon, causing him to clip heels.

Then came the backlash. What if Hot Rod Charlie’s jockey Flavien Prat had been permitted to use his crop even just once left-handed to try to straighten out his mount? The outcry went viral, but of course we will never know what would have happened and each person has his or her own feelings about the rule.

We could go into the rule discussing its flaws and whether or not it contributed to the incident or which jockey if any was at fault. Would Hot Rod Charlie have drifted if trainer Doug O’Neill hadn’t removed his blinkers? Everything has two sides and people will make their case either way. But that is not what this column is about. Midnight Bourbon is fine, Paco Lopez is fine, and we witnessed two courageous horses giving their all, as they have all year.

This column is about the Thoroughbred and what we saw exhibited in the stretch of the Haskell. We already knew that Hot Rod Charlie and Mandaloun were warriors who never backed away from a fight. And they took their fight all the way to the wire, leaning on each other with both jockeys pushing hard with all their strength and Prat going to several crosses on Hot Rod Charlie.

But we have seen that before. That is what top-class Thoroughbreds are supposed to do in the heat of battle. What we hardly ever see is what Midnight Bourbon did that very well may saved this from being a catastrophe. There is nothing as dangerous as a fallen horse with other horses directly behind running 40 miles an hour and having to somehow avoid the horse on the ground. The reason many believed Midnight Bourbon had fallen is that he pretty much was on the ground. All four legs had crumbled in a heap and he had nothing from which he could push off to get back on his feet. When a horse is running that fast and suddenly clips heels and heads to the ground it has to be a frightening experience, and all he has is his survival instinct, his strength, and a rare athleticism to avoid falling and endangering himself, his rider, and the horses behind him. Midnight Bourbon exhibited all three and somehow was able to pick himself off the ground and get back on his feet. But in doing so, his rider, unlike Jeremy Rose on Afleet Alex in that amazing 2005 Preakness, went flying off the side of his neck landing in front of him.

Once again, the element that makes the Thoroughbred such a remarkable athlete took over. Lopez crouched in the fetal position for protection, found himself under Midnight Bourbon, who had both foreleg legs in front of Lopez and both back legs behind, and those back legs had to go somewhere. Still running at a good speed and no doubt shaken, the colt was able to angle his body slightly to the side and then lift his legs over the fallen jockey. Had he not made the effort to lift his legs they no doubt would have come down hard on Lopez.

Some may feel is was overstating the incident and perhaps anthropomorphizing Midnight Bourbon’s actions in regard to saving his rider from serious injury, as horses will naturally try to avoid objects in their path. But they are not always able to. I am merely looking at the results and the remarkable athleticism it took for the colt to pick himself up off the ground and then avoid hitting Lopez, all in a matter of seconds. And no doubt in a frightened state. As courageous as Hot Rod Charlie and Mandaloun were, I believe Midnight Bourbon is the unsung hero the 2021 Haskell, and what he did is what we will remember most about the race and certainly what I will remember most about the colt, more than his victories and his narrow defeats in major races.

No one can say this hasn’t been an interesting and entertaining crop of 3-year-olds, who have exhibited their courage under fire on numerous occasions. We saw it with Medina Spirit and Hot Rod Charlie in the Robert Lewis Stakes. We saw it with Essential Quality and Highly Motivated in the Blue Grass Stakes. We saw it with Medina Spirit, Mandaloun, Hot Rod Charlie, and Essential Quality in the Kentucky Derby. We saw with Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie in the Belmont Stakes. We saw it with Mandaloun and Weyburn in the Pegasus Stakes and earlier in the year with Weyburn and Crowded Trade in the Gotham, as well as Helium’s gutsy comeback in the Tampa Bay Derby. And now we see it with Hot Rod Charlie and Mandaloun in the Haskell.

Is it possible that at some point Mandaloun is going to be the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Haskell without having finished first in either race and not even being affected by the infractions that gave him both victories? How odd was it to see Following Sea on his way to staggering home in fourth, beaten well over 20 lengths, in the Haskell wind up finishing second?

As for this crop, let’s remember that the Kentucky Derby was the fastest running in the past 20 years (excluding last year when it was run in September). The Belmont Stakes was the second fastest running in the past 20 years. The Preakness, won by Rombauer, was the second fastest running (excluding last year when it was run in October) in the past 20 years, So in the past two decades the only two horses to have run faster in Triple Crown races than this year’s three winners are American Pharoah and Curlin.

As for the Haskell, it was the second-fastest running in the past 34 years. Only the great Rachel Alexandra has run faster.

While Essential Quality is atop all the polls as the leading 3-year-old, that could change in the Travers, and there are many who believe Hot Rod Charlie ran the best race in the Belmont, setting Secretariat-like fractions of :22 3/5 and :46 2/5 under pressure the whole way and still only getting beat 1 ¼ lengths by Essential Quality, while finishing 11 ¼ lengths ahead of Rombauer in third. But then again there are many who felt Essential Quality ran the best race in the Derby, having to race very wide every step of the way. It could all prove moot in the Travers when most everyone from the Derby trail will converge on Saratoga’s Midsummer Derby, although Hot Rod Charlie likely will go in the Pacific Classic. And there is the unbeaten Curlin colt First Captain, winner of the Dwyer Stakes, who is headed to the Curlin Stakes and then the Travers. And we still have to wait and see what’s happening with Life is Good, who looked like the clear-cut leader of the division before being sidelined.

So on we go to the Travers to see who emerges as the leading 3-year-old. No matter who is victorious I still will remember Midnight Bourbon and will continue to marvel at what he did in the Haskell and the disaster he may have prevented. On that day, he was a true Thoroughbred.

Photos by Peter Ackerman, courtesy of MSN


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