More Than Haskell's Purse Appeals to Crawford
Article via The Courier-Journal, Jennie Rees
OCEANPORT, N.J. – Even before Wednesday afternoon's announcement that Monmouth Park was raising the purse for Sunday's William Hill Haskell Invitational $750,000 to $1.75 million, horse owner Jerry Crawford was looking at the perks that can't be monetized.
That's why he opted to take on Triple Crown winner American Pharoah with his Belmont Stakes third-place finisher Keen Ice, rather than looking for a softer spot in Mountaineer's $750,000 West Virginia Derby on Saturday, or even Saratoga's $600,000 Jim Dandy. Crawford is founder and head of the Donegal Racing syndicate that campaigns Keen Ice. And while some rivals might consider American Pharoah's larger-than-life presence a deterrent to running, Crawford sees it as a windfall.
"First of all, it's a great race with very nice people at Monmouth Park," Crawford said earlier in the week. "They are one of the places that treat you the best in the country. Secondly, the opportunity to be on racing's biggest stage, which I'll define as a stage American Pharoah is on, is very, very intriguing to us.
"We're not silly enough to fool ourselves into thinking we're likely to win. But to be in the race with him will give Donegal Racing partners a great deal of excitement. It will bring a lot of attention for our partnership. There's really no downside. All the rest of us are probably running for $200,000 second prize. And that's just fine."
When Crawford spoke, he noted you'd have to win a $350,000 race to earn $200,000. Now, with the Haskell purse hike, it's $350,000 for second, more than winning a $500,000 race.
"And he'd get one/100th of the attention," Crawford said. "It's hard to explain to an outsider how much a partnership gets out of that. They love the attention, they love the focus it puts on what we're able to accomplish as a group. It's a big plus."
Donegal Racing, comprised mostly of Iowans when founded in 2008, has won Grade I races with Paddy O'Prado, Dullahan and Finnegans Wake. Like Keen Ice, all were trained by Louisville's Dale Romans, though Peter Miller now trains Finnegans Wake, Churchill Downs' Woodford Reserve Turf Classic victor the race before Keen Ice was a trouble-plagued seventh in the Kentucky Derby.
"We've gotten more inquiries from people wanting to join Donegal from finishing third in the Belmont Stakes this year than we've ever gotten from winning any of the Grade Is before," Crawford said.
Now there's just the minor detail of how one beats American Pharoah, which no horse has done since the colt was fifth in his career debut 51 weeks ago at Del Mar.
Keen Ice, named by a Donegal partner for a curling term, has a very different record. The son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin is 1 for 9, while finishing third in two other stakes besides the Belmont, running well enough to earn $310,395.
Entries will be taken Thursday and there appears plenty of speed – not just American Pharoah, but the Competitive Edge coming out of sprints and Monmouth Park-based Mr. Jordan. That could help Keen Ice's closing style, though Monmouth is known as a speed-favoring track.
Kent Desormeaux, who rides Keen Ice in the Haskell, says the colt has more in the tank than he's been showing.
"I have not found Keen Ice's bottom," he said. "There's a button on him somewhere, and I cannot find his button. (But) I'm going to find it and push it hard in the Haskell. He's got more. I don't think he's shown his best yet."
Romans believes the equalizer could be simply that it's hard for any horse, even all-time greats, to stay at its peak.
"If everybody runs their race, we could be a good second," he said. "And if Pharoah stubs his toe, I mean, a stud career the Haskell makes. We know he's a special horse, one of the best we've seen in a long time. But he's had a grueling year."
Indeed, Tammy Fox, Romans' life partner and top-shelf exercise rider, says this might be the best time to try to trip up American Pharoah.
"If there's a time, it's probably now, if you're going to beat him," said Fox, who had been Keen Ice's work rider but will have surgery Friday for a bulging disc, "… I think Keen Ice is peaking at the right time, and Dale likes to take all these chances."
Crawford concedes Saratoga's surface might have been more conducive to Keen Ice's running style.
"But if we run well Sunday, we'll get to run on that surface at Saratoga in the Travers," said Crawford. "… If we could sign a contract for second place today, we'd sign it and encourage Pharoah to go on up to Saratoga at the end of the month."
Dallas Stewart, trainer of West Virginia Derby-bound Tale of Verve (a Haskell invitee), said he'd have like to have the opportunity to consider the Haskell in the wake the purse increase. But he never found out until it was too late to reroute the Preakness runner-up, who is at Churchill Downs. The equine charter bringing American Pharoah from California Wednesday morning stopped in Lexington, but Stewart said he found out about the increase late that afternoon on Twitter.
"It's an invitational but they never notified the invitees," he said.
Stewart said Monmouth offered to pay for Tale of Verve to van to Monmouth but that it's too hot for that to be a viable option.