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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170 Responses to “A Haskell to Remember… In Many Ways”

  1. Steve lipke says:

    A well written article again, thank you. I started out with athletic horses at a young age; 9 years old to exact with polo ponies which, many were off the track Thoroughbreds. Progressing from there into involvement with racing Thoroughbreds. As you can read, I understand the athletic abilities that this breed has. I did have one occasion where I had a horse at a slow gallop fall to his knees and summersaulted head over heels. To save injury to myself, I immediately while going down, kicked my feet out of the stirrups and vaulted from the back of this horse, and was able to see this horse perform his summersault. The horse immediately got up and trotted away unphased. Thankfully he and I were both uninjured. As it turned out, the horse has a nerve issue with his left foreleg, that intermittently blocked the sensation of his hoof hitting the ground – no feed back. It was an odd and tough way to discover this. As the rider your first thought is protecting yourself, the second immediately is the horse. When I see an incidence like we saw in the Haskell, I immediately think of the rider, then the horse. It always is a amazing cooperation that is created between horse and rider, and the bond that is usually created between the two which, if you think about it is an unusual relationship as the rider has the fewest time with the horse to develop this bond. Horses will generally avoid stepping on a human, and avoid things in their path as you mentioned in this article. Sometimes it can’t be avoided. But the horse will do its best to keep from going down, not only protecting its self, but the rider as well. have a good day Steve.

    • Steve Haskin says:

      Thank you for sharing that Steve. These horses never cease to amaze us and we learn something new about them every day.

  2. Linda Mann says:

    Thank you Steve. Your insights and love of the horse and the way you express yourself always help me process/decompress these adrenaline jolting experiences.

    Speaking of whip use, I can’t remember the race or the horse, 2 yr old fillies, the leader was pulling away, then the jockey used the whip, obviously not a safety use. The filly bucked and lost some ground, sped back up, was still well in front, he hit her again, she bucked again, slowed lost ground again, then sped up again. She won easily, but I just am shaking my head. Was he trying to teach her something about racing or was he just not thinking?

    • Steve Haskin says:

      Thank you very much, Linda. Many jocks abuse the whip, which is a shame because they ruin the concept of it for the jocks who use it correctly

  3. Davids says:

    Steve, there is plenty to contemplate in your thoughtful analysis of the Haskell Invitational. The racing gods were certainly watching over Midnight Bourbon and Paco Lopez when they went down. There is nothing worse in racing, your eyes dart around over rider and horse imploring that everything is fine. Too often you’ve seen the horrible side of racing to revisit carnage once again. Thank the gods, thank the gods.

    Did you catch the Irish Oaks at all? Snowfall put on some show, did she not? Coolmore have two very special fillies in Snowfall and Love, who is the better? Should Love take the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes this Saturday she gets the nod but Snowfall looks very special.

    The Arc could be the decider. Don’t miss the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes though it’s going to be a cracker.

  4. EddieF says:

    You are correct, Steve. Despite the tremendous battle to the finish by HRC and Mandaloun, the nightmare that wasn’t was the moment to remember. Because neither horse nor rider suffered any serious injury, I’ve watched the incident about a dozen times. It was just short of being a miracle.

    Another “What if” in the Haskell is, What might have happened if HRC hadn’t interfered with Midnight Bourbon? MB had already given up the lead to HRC and Mandy. The only race in which MB passed a horse in the stretch was in the Derby, and in that race he passed two horses but was only able to finish 6th by 8 lengths. We’ll never know for sure, but it seemed that MB was destined for third. If so, HRC was denied the win because he denied MB a third-place finish.

  5. Jo Anne says:


    Best recap of the Haskell. It amazes me that MB stayed (mostly) upright and that Paco didn’t get hurt worse. The Travers should be an interesting race along with the BCC with this year’s gang. Hoping I don’t have to change channels a million times to watch next month’s fun!

  6. Diane Elhard says:

    As always Steve, you captured the essence of it.
    Midnight Bourbon showed so much class in his fall and defeat, we cannot take that away from him. I will never forget his athleticism and prowess avoiding so much danger. I’m sure Paco thanked him!

    Excited for the Travers. All of this crop has indeed been exciting and interesting and the end of the year is going to be so interesting.
    And most important of all – they all came back to the barn safe and sound.
    Thank you Steve!


  7. Paula Higgins says:

    Great article with Midnight Bourbon as the hero and that he was. Never have I felt so much
    relief to see a horse still running on the track. I thought for sure he was in bad shape after
    that fall. It was just horrible. Paco was moving a little right after he fell and that was a
    good sign but the best news was later when they said he was bruised but fine. Midnight
    Bourbon seems to have come out of it with no injury (so far) and that is miraculous. Ditto

    HRC is a truly talented horse. Mandaloun very impressive also. But the d’q was absolutely right.
    Flavien didn’t see MB and that was that. The whip rule, which I now believe should be changed
    back, wasn’t really a factor. He had the whip and didn’t use it. But I am in the camp of they need
    to be able to use it at their discretion. It is a safety issue for horse and man and they should not
    have to think about should I or shouldn’t I use it in a split second.

    Mandaloun will have backed into two major races and I am sure Brad Cox did not want to win them that
    way. Regardless, he has a really good horse that continues to show he shouldn’t be underestimated.

    HRC seems headed to the Pacific Classic and not the Travers. That will be fine. I hope he gets his
    much deserved first Grade I. Still not sure who is better Essential Quality or Hot Rod Charlie. I am
    a major EQ fan. He is underrated in my opinion also. They won’t meet up again until the BCC and
    maybe we will all be surprised and see Maxfield take it or Mandaloun or Midnight Bourbon. It is a great
    group of 3 year olds that just seem to be getting better.

  8. Tori Mendonca says:

    Thanks for the insight, I agree that Midnight Bourbon’s innate reactions, saved the day and miraculously so, and that jerk clipping will be on the highlight reel in the future. Amazing how fast those races were run this year, as the traditional schedule is back. I think if HRC goes to the Travers and wins, he positions himself more likely as the 3 year olds Champion based on his performances, but I don’t make those decisions, and I say that as a huge fan of Risk Taking and Life’s Good, and not taking anything away from each horse that are clearly amazingly talented athletes to even get to these races. As always, enjoyed reading your thoughts!

  9. Discopartner says:

    Exactly what I was thinking about Midnight Bourbon, thanks for speaking up for him, or writing up for him. He displayed his fine balance once before, when he got loose in a shedrow. He looks good when he’s in trouble, like he’s wearing a tux and brawling in the dust. I checked out Tales from the Crib, published before the Derby, and he was considered to be light on his feet and long legged as a yearling. When it happened I thought he had tripped on his own, then slow motion revealed his long right front leg had hooked the right rear leg of HRC, which could only happen because the latter moved over, but not ahead, by the commensurate amount. That’s like a car passing another car but scraping its bumper as it moves in front and into the same lane. Afleet Alex ended up with a hairline fracture that ended his career one race later, when complications arose. So it’s hard to say what they should do with Midnight Bourbon. I wish he could run to his spectacular looks, but that might be dangerous.

  10. richard gross says:

    There’s nothing wrong with the rule; there is everything wrong with Prat. He is routinely involved in controversy.

    • Discopartner says:

      I think it was an accident, they knew going in they couldn’t whip, but it’s hard to allow for every contingency. HRC throws his back legs back pretty far too, that may be an element of his speed, so combine that with a horse with extra long legs behind him and…

    • pro vet says:

      I will not post about your comment…….which is one of the worst ive ever seen

    • Matthew W says:

      Hot Rod saw Mandaloun, methinks, and when he did he moved over towards him….a battller…..I think—IF there’s no clipping—Hot Rod wins….but its never easy to rally inside, vs the best— Mandaloun ran very well…..a terrific finish, and their heads were in the ding dong position, exchanging leads—Id guess they would have finished 4 lengths clear of Midnight Bourbon, oh oh. Here come the angry Midnight Bourbon fans…..I’m a MB fan, too.

  11. Marc Mink says:

    Cannot imagine a summary and breakdown better said nor more to the point of the real importance of it all.
    Perfectly stated and professionally detailed Steve.. and you managed to do so without losing the emotion and pathos
    Outstanding, Steve

  12. Sheila says:

    I am just grateful, glad and relieved that everyone lived to fight another day. It has become a sad state though when your 1st thought, obviously and rightly, is with that of the condition of horses and riders but then immediately your brain switches to “oh boy, here comes the crucification horse racing again and what will it take to defend it this time”?!? How do you educate people to see that beauty and athleticism and that this is not a killer sport. Racing really needs to work on its image – especially the one presented to the casual fan. Maybe it’s time to pad those broadcasts with instead of so many human interests stories something explaining what happens in cases like this. You don’t need to necessarily prevent something that only a vet is going understand but to help people Understand how and why things like this can and do happen. Then again like I said I’m just grateful glad and relieved they all got around OK in the end

  13. These horses really are equine athletes.

  14. Thanks for your valuable insight (as usual), Steve. I actually gasped when Midnight Bourbon almost went down. Felt better when he continued on, but nervous about Paco. Glad I heard later that night that he planned to ride the next day.

    But man, Hot Rod Charlie and Mandaloun, what a finish! For me, that is what racing is all about.

  15. Ms Black Type says:

    Steve, you are a genius at writing about horse racing. You chose to focus on the animal smarts of Midnight Bourbon at regathering himself and avoiding his jockey at the same time. He is truly a remarkable thoroughbred and his really stepped up in my estimation. In the aftermath, as I watched the coverage on NBC, it was clear Doug O’Neill was upset about the fall and knew Hot Rod’s number would come down. He was so broken up he couldn’t even talk to Laffit Pincay Jr.

    • Steve Haskin says:

      That’s very kind of you. Thank you very much. I really appreciate it. I always try to provide a different outlook on things.

  16. That was excellent Steve. I couldn’t agree with you more!

  17. Terri King says:

    The exact word I would have described MB, what athleticism of the horse and the conditioning by the Trainer! I watched the stretch run over and over, and in slo-mo. I knew HRT would be taken down. But it also looked like Mandaloun moved ever so slightly out to engage HRT, MB moved ever so slightly out to avoid him, and at the same time HRT moved in to engage Mandaloun. Prat was working very hard pushing his horse forward and may not have known what was behind him. But I’m not a jockey. I just watch a lot of horse racing.

    • Steve Haskin says:

      There are so many little nuances regarding what happened. Some felt Paco could have avoided it. You just dont know

      • Laura L Lanham says:

        Unless you are on top riding you don’t know. Just very glad everyone is ok. I don’t agree with the riding crop rule personally but is what it is and not sure it would have made much difference in that spill when it happened. They all wanted to get to the lead, what they were born and trained to do.

  18. Teri Shelton says:

    Beautifully written, and so glad you didn’t linger on the whip rule. I do think Midnight Bourbon is a true hero and athlete, the only thing that really saddens me is MB and Paco would have placed 3rd or maybe even 2nd since he was squeezed out and received a paycheck. Very unfortunate.

  19. sceptre says:


    Good of you to focus on Midnight Bourbon’s admirable behavior. I’ve experienced manifestations similar to this with several thoroughbreds I have owed. Noble beings they are.

    • Davids says:

      Hi sceptre, do you have an opinion on Snowfall? The King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes this Saturday could be one for the ages. I’m leaning toward Love but it should be close.

      • sceptre says:

        Hi David,

        I’ve been enjoying your comments.

        My take on the King George: Much better than average renewal, but I don’t see it as a clash of the titans, etc. These days, though, it takes a lot for me to get excited over a race as, for me, racing isn’t what it used to be. I’ll be rooting for Mishriff and Japan, but I now must accept that the latter isn’t what he used to be. …As to Snowfall: I really see her as being overrated, and hope she meets up with Philomene whom I regard as her better.

        • Davids says:

          Ha ha Yes, I’ve seen better fields in the King George but the English are superb in building up an event that you may as well join in the fun. Especially, when you have to watch from afar. Good luck with Mishriff and Japan, you never know. Love will be tested here and, should she win, will deserve the praise given previously.

          Philomene’s loss in the Prix de Diane was a surprise but that’s racing. Interesting comment on Snowfall, you may be right Autumn is the time to sort them out.

    • Davids says:

      Impressive win by Adayar in the King George, Love doesn’t appear to be as good as last year while Mishriff may have needed the race, his challenge lost momentum in the late stages.

  20. Karen Estis says:

    The consistency among these colts… This is what I am liking. Yes, I think Hot Rod Charlie is a bit the best right now, but that is just what I think. They still have battles on the track to prove who is the best.

  21. Tetrarch says:

    Memorable indeed.Good group of 3YOs this year leading to the big races this fall. I like Midnight Bourbon and hope is fine and finally has a race come together for him.

  22. Matthew W says:

    Essential Quality…Hot Rod Charlie…Mandaloun…Medina Spirit….Rombauer….Midnight Bourbon….Jackie’s Warrior…..and Flightline is running very soon at Del Mar…..

    • Matthew W says:

      Only Rachel ran faster in past 34 years…and that was on a rolled-fast super highway—times that day were all fast…

      • Discopartner says:

        What a crock, she won by 6 lengths, the other horses didn’t find it to be a super highway.

        • Matthew W says:

          So what? Times that day WERE faster than normal—rolled tracks remove cushion and they can set track records, and do…..last Sat was a NORMAL track–I’d like to tell you where to put your crock!

        • Matthew W says:

          Look, Disco Duck….those two were TWENTY lengths clear of 3rd place on Sat…..loved your Rachel–great filly—but go have your cry elsewhere, I was talking about last Saturday–fastest in 34 years, AND…the only one faster was run over a ROLLED FAST SURFACE!

          • Discopartner says:

            You’re the one crying because those horses don’t have the fastest time in the last 15 years. And they were 20 lengths clear because HRC knocked over Midnight Bourbon, who set the pace that made the final time fast. And you preening about how he would have finished 4 lengths back, like it actually happened. Go write your exclamation points and capitols somewhere else.

    • Matthew W says:

      nearly forgot Greatest Honor!

  23. Matthew W says:

    You had me at anthropomorphizing!

  24. Suzie Thompson says:

    I loved this article Steve. You are so right. When I saw MB fall I got chills. Then the finish. I did not know the stewards had lit the inquiry post until HRC was taken down. What a race! I just wish HRC had not closed in so much. Midnight Bourbon is a true athlete!

  25. Wanda L Smith says:

    SO well said, Steve Haskin – about an incredibly athletic horse. I gasped loud enough to be heard clear to NJ as I watched the stretch run and was so relieved to see Midnight Bourbon gallop past the finish line and then to read that Paco would ride the next day. Horse and human “survival” instincts kicked in and kept that from being a much worse situation as you so clearly outlined in this wonderful article. You can’t EVER stop writing. We need your insight, mind and heart!