by Jon White
July 21, 2021
There certainly is a lot to unpack regarding last Saturday’s $1 million Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park.
Jockey Paco Lopez was abruptly unseated from Midnight Bourbon during the stretch drive. Hot Rod Charlie and Mandaloun then proceeded to battle furiously all the way to a head-bobbing finish. Hot Rod Charlie beat Mandaloun by a scant nose in what was purely the luck of the bob.
The stewards quickly lit the inquiry sign. Inquiries and/or objections at almost all tracks these days generally take at least 10 minutes or so before a decision is announced. Not in this case.
According to the Equibase race chart, the Haskell started at 5:48 p.m. It took 1:47.38 to run the race. Track announcer Frank Mirahmadi announced the following stewards’ decision at 5:54:
“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please. There has been a disqualification. Number 4 Hot Rod Charlie has been disqualified from first and placed last for causing number 6 Midnight Bourbon to clip heels in midstretch. The new winner becomes number 3 Mandaloun, placed second number 1 Following Sea, third number 2 Antigravity, and fourth number 5 Pickin’ Time. Number 4 Hot Rod Charlie disqualified from first, placed last for the incident involving number 6 Midnight Bourbon in midstretch.”
In my view, the stewards were justified to disqualify Hot Rod Charlie. It appeared to me that Hot Rod Charlie, ridden by Flavien Prat, drifted in about two horse paths without sufficient clearance, causing Midnight Bourbon to stumble badly and unseat his rider as a result of Midnight Bourbon clipping Hot Rod Charlie’s heels.
Should Mandaloun also have been disqualified for drifting out and contributing to the incident in which Midnight Bourbon unseated his rider? I will discuss that later.
The race chart states that Midnight Bourbon “clipped the heels of Hot Rod Charlie” at the eighth pole. However, that actually occurred well past the eighth pole. Lopez was unseated about a third of the way between the eighth pole and sixteenth pole.
Earlier in the race, as the field of seven entered the far turn, Following Sea was leading by a half-length while being pressed to his outside by Midnight Bourbon. But even though Following Sea had set just a moderate early pace (:23.82, :47.32, 1:10.64), he was not able to stay in front. About midway on the far turn, Midnight Bourbon wrested the advantage from Following Sea.
When Midnight Bourbon increased his lead to a length or so at the quarter pole, it was abundantly clear that Following Sea was toast. At that point, Hot Rod Charlie and Mandaloun both loomed big threats. Hot Rod Charlie was on the move while racing wide, while jockey Florent Geroux on Mandaloun looked like he had a ton of horse underneath him, though Mandaloun was boxed in and Geroux was seeking a seam.
IN NEED OF A REARVIEW MIRROR
From midway on the far turn to the top of the lane, Lopez looked more like bobblehead than a jockey riding in a Grade I race. While taking the lead about halfway around the far turn, he looked back to his right. Lopez then peered back to his left numerous times before reaching the head of the stretch.
A nice hole opened for Mandaloun when, as the race chart accurately states, he “found a seam two wide turning for home,” enabling him to come through between Following Sea and Midnight Bourbon.
A little more than a furlong out, Hot Rod Charlie, Mandaloun and Midnight Bourbon were engaged in a fierce battle for the lead. At the eighth pole, according to the race chart, Hot Rod Charlie (on the outside) was leading by a half-length. Mandaloun was second, a head in front of Midnight Bourbon. There was a four-length gap back to the faltering Following Sea in fourth.
Hot Rod Charlie appeared to be in about the four path at the top of the stretch. He then drifted toward the rail and appeared to be in about the two path when his heels were clipped by Midnight Bourbon.
On Steve Byk’s SiriusXM radio program At the Races, ex-jockey Richard Migliore gave his take on what happened in the final three furlongs of the Haskell. I thought Migliore did an excellent job. An Eclipse Award-winning apprentice jockey in 1981, “The Mig” won 4,450 races during his riding career.
Migliore said that when Lopez knew on the far turn that he “had the measure of Following Sea,” the rider started looking around.
“If ever a guy needed a rearview mirror, it’s this guy,” Migliore said.
Lopez looked to his right and saw Hot Rod Charlie, then looked to his left and saw Mandaloun, Migliore noted.
“Now he’s going to ride three different horses,” Migliore said. “He goes out to Hot Rod Charlie because [Hot Rod Charlie] has first run,” Migliore said.
By taking Hot Rod Charlie out to the five path, Migliore said, it gave Mandaloun room to come through to the inside of Midnight Bourbon.
At the head of the stretch, when Lopez looked to his left and saw that Mandaloun had moved up to get alongside Midnight Bourboun, Lopez then angled back toward Midnight Bourbon, according to Migliore.
“Now this is where Flavien made the mistake,” Migliore continued. “He wants to get down next to Mandaloun so these two horses are going to fight it out.” Prat “doesn’t want to make it easy” on Mandaloun, and Prat “overdid it.” Prat “did it too quickly and didn’t give Midnight Bourbon a chance to get out from between them.”
Nearing the eighth pole, Midnight Bourbon and Lopez “get squeezed,” Migliore said, and as Lopez is getting squeezed, “when he goes to steady, you’ve got to steady straight back in that situation.” Lopez “goes to try to go over that horse’s heels to the outside instead of steading straight back, and that’s why he caught that horse’s heels.”
I concur with the supposition that if Lopez had reacted as most veteran riders would in that situation by steadying straight back, he most likely would have avoided clipping Hot Rod Charlie’s heels. To put it another way, Lopez might have avoided clipping heels and being unseated if he had been riding more defensively than offensively in that situation. I think Lopez’s actions contributed to why he was thrown to the track. But this does not in any way absolve Prat of blame in that, by not maintaining a straight course, he was the primary cause of the incident.
If Lopez “had steadied straight, maybe Hot Rod Charlie still [is disqualified],” but Lopez doesn’t get dropped,” Migliore said. Lopez, Migliore opined, contributed to the circumstances for the incident to occur and “facilitated” being unseated as a result of Midnight Bourbon trying to jump over Hot Rod Charlie’s heels.
“Did he still think he was going to jump over that horse’s heels, kick again and still beat” Hot Rod Charlie and Mandloun? “At that point you have one option,” Migliore said. “You have to steady straight back. And he wouldn’t have even been in that position if he wasn’t trying to ride everybody else’s horse, and not even trying to do it subtly -- I’m going to go here, I’m going to go there. It’s not NASCAR.
“These are animals, thousand-pound animals, that you can’t shift their weight every which way. Go forward. The finish line’s in front of you. The bag of money is in front of you. It’s not sideways. It’s not to the left. It’s not to the right. It’s in front of you.
“I have no problem with the DQ” of Hot Rod Charlie. “I understand it. But I also understand Flavien’s thought process.”
Migliore surmised that Prat was thinking, “This guy just packed me out, he let [Mandaloun] through, and I’ve got to [move] down to [Mandaloun].” But Prat “overdid it, 100 percent.”
According to Migliore, “you could’ve made the argument that Mandaloun’s number should have been blinking, too. He came out about half as much as Hot Rod Charlie came in. And then Paco didn’t steady straight back and he got dropped. Thank God the horse is okay. Thank God Paco’s okay. You never want to see that. But it marred what should have been a race for the ages, with these two horses fighting it out to the line.”
If what Lopez did was “race-riding, then I never knew what race-riding was,” Migliore said. “And I rode with some of the greatest race-riders of all time, Angel Cordero, Tony Black on that list as well, who knew how to race-ride, who knew the subtleties of coming out to just stem your forward progress a little bit, while not stemming their horse’s forward progress. Who knew how to put you in just close enough without putting you in danger, but making it tough on you. That’s a jockey’s job.”
But for Lopez to be in the two path, then the five path, then the three path – “come on, stop,” Migliore said. “When do the stewards wake up and say, ‘Enough of this nonsense.’
DID MANDALOUN CONTRIBUTE TO THE INCIDENT?
Getting back to Mandaloun’s path in the stretch, I agree with Migliore that a case can be made that Mandaloun’s number also should have been blinking, though, actually, no numbers were ever blinking on the infield totalisator board.
Did Mandaloun contribute to the incident by drifting out about one path? Maybe. Even though Mandaloun never appeared to make contact with Midnight Bourbon, did Mandaloun’s drifting out cause Midnight Bourbon to move outward and thereby put him behind Midnight Bourbon, which contributed to Midnight Bourbon clipping Hot Rod Charlie’s heels? Again, maybe.
I understand why some believe that both Hot Rod Charlie and Mandaloun should have been disqualified, though if that had happened, it would have been beyond distasteful. If Following Sea had been declared the Haskell winner after losing by a little more than 18 lengths, he no doubt would have been have been one of the most unsatisfying winners of a big race in American racing history.
But I also get why the stewards did not disqualify Mandaloun. While it’s clear on the head-on that he drifted out about one path, it is not clear from any of the video angles that I have seen that he definitely -- I repeat, definitely -- contributed in some way to Midnight Bourbon clipping heels. It is possible that he did, but stewards should not take a number down when it’s nothing more than a maybe.
DID NO BLINKERS AND/OR NO CROP USAGE PLAY A ROLE?
Without blinkers in his first three career starts, Hot Rod Charlie recorded Beyer Speed Figures of 51, 56 and 57. After blinkers were added to his equipment, he logged Beyers of 78, 94, 94, 99, 100 and 108.
Nevertheless, trainer Doug O’Neill took the blinkers off Hot Rod Charlie for the Haskell.
What about Hot Rod Charlie racing without blinkers? Did that contribute to Hot Rod Charlie not racing straight in the stretch drive?
“Lugging in, that’s never been a problem, but maybe it’s a question you ask [about the Haskell], with blinkers off,” O’Neill was quoted as saying by Daily Racing Form’s Marcus Hersh. “Anytime something like that happens, all kinds of things go through your head. Talking to Flavien after the race, I mentioned, ‘Do you think we put the blinkers back on?’ and Flavien said no. He said -- paraphrasing here -- he could have prevented things with a gentle left-handed stick.”
BloodHorse’s Bob Ehalt wrote: “Prat said he might have been able to handle Hot Rod Charlie better if he had been allowed to use his crop early in the stretch run.”
Ehalt quoted Prat as saying: “Yes, the lack of [being allowed to use] a crop came into play. I was trying to correct him as much as I could. If I could have hit him just one time left-handed, we would have been just fine, but it is what it is.”
Jockeys’ Guild president Terry Meyocks said he “absolutely” blames the New Jersey Racing Commission for the incident in the Haskell in which Lopez was unseated, Tom Pedulla wrote for horseracingnation.com.
“The commission seemingly ignored the Guild’s concerns when it prohibited the use of the riding crop except for safety considerations,” Pedulla wrote. “Hot Rod Charlie, under a vigorous hand ride from Flavien Prat that failed to straighten him, came in on Midnight Bourbon” and caused him “to clip heels. Midnight Bourbon nearly went down while unseating Lopez, who was fortunate to escape serious injury.”
Pedulla quoted Meyocks as saying: “I blame the New Jersey Racing Commission for rules they put into effect without any communication with anybody. They forced it. It’s unfortunate, and they should be held accountable for it.”
But it did not appear to me that Prat was making any effort to correct -- i.e, straighten Hot Rod Charlie’s course -- in the vicinity of the eighth pole. I believe Prat wanted Hot Rod Charlie to get close to Mandaloun so that the two equine combatants could look each other in the eye in their battle to the finish. As Migliore said, while it’s understandable why Prat would do that, Prat just overdid it by going a bit too far too soon toward Mandaloun without sufficient clearance.
It did not appear to me that Hot Rod Charlie was being the least bit difficult for Prat to “steer.” Hot Rod Charlie was not at all rank or headstrong. It looked like the colt was running along kindly and being cooperative to whatever his rider asked him to do. It appeared to me that Prat simply rode Hot Rod Charlie in such a manner as to get next to Mandaloun. Prat did that, not Hot Rod Charlie.
Prat’s failure to maintain a straight course during the stretch drive of the Haskell brings to mind what I have told many jockeys more times than I can remember through the years ever since I first worked as a steward in 1979.
“The more you keep a straight course out there on the track, the less trouble you will get yourself into,” I’ve told them. “And if you stay straight, you’ll find yourself here in the stewards’ office the next day far less often. Whenever you do not keep a straight course, you always increase the chances of possibly getting your number taken down.”
INCIDENT OVERSHADOWED A TERRIFIC BATTLE
As Migliore said, it is too bad the incident involving Midnight Bourbon took away from the entertaining show that Hot Rod Charlie and Mandaloun put on in the final furlong. As “The Mig” also noted, it is wonderful that Midnight Bourbon and Lopez emerged from the incident as well as they did.
According to Lynne Snierson’s post-Haskell notes for Monmouth’s publicity department, “the early report on Midnight Bourbon was positive and his connections are cautiously optimistic.”
Steve Asmussen trains Midnight Bourbon for Winchell Thoroughbreds.
“They did X-rays on him and jogged him this morning,” David Fiske, Winchell Thoroughbreds’ longtime stable manager, said Sunday morning of Midnight Bourbon. “The X-rays were no different than what they showed before the race. He seems to be jogging better today than he was yesterday. Everybody’s got their fingers crossed that nothing pops up in the next few days or so. We’ll watch him and wait and see. It’s a little early to make any plans for him.”
Though Asmussen did not win this year’s Haskell, the Hall of Famer is on the brink of equaling Dale Baird’s all-time North American training record of 9,445 victories. Through Wednesday, July 21, Asmussen trailed Baird by only 12, according to Equibase.
As for Hot Rod Charlie, the DRF’s Hersh wrote that he came out of the race “cut and scraped.”
Hersh also wrote that “Lopez was immobilized on a stretcher and taken off the track in an ambulance, but within 20 minutes was back on his feet, reportedly suffering from nothing worse than relatively minor knee pain.”
Lopez rode Sunday, winning Monmouth’s first race.
As for Hot Rod Charlie, he “came out of the race with a cut high on a hind leg that trainer Doug O’Neill, who visited his charge Sunday morning on the Monmouth backstretch, described as ‘superficial,’ ” Hersh wrote.
Mandaloun, trained by Brad Cox, now is a Grade I winner following the disqualification of Hot Rod Charlie in the Haskell. As the runner-up in the Kentucky Derby, Mandaloun also is positioned to be declared the winner of that race if, as widely expected, Medina Spirit is disqualified at some point because his post-race split-sample tests reportedly showed the presence of the therapeutic medication betamethasone. Kentucky rules ban that medication from being in a horse’s system during a race.
It is to Mandaloun’s credit that he has been a gem of consistency. The only time he has not fired was when he finished sixth as the 13-10 favorite in the Grade II Louisiana Derby. The Kentucky-bred Into Mischief colt has five wins, a second and a third from eight career starts.
2019 KENTUCKY DERBY LUCKY TO AVOID A SPILL
When Midnight Bourbon clipped heels and unseated his rider during the stretch drive in the Haskell, it showed what easily could have happened on the far turn in the 2019 Kentucky Derby.
The 2019 Run for the Roses is the race in which Maximum Security finished first by 1 3/4 lengths, but then was disqualified and placed 17th by the stewards. Maximum Security had his number taken down when the stewards ruled that he had drifted out and caused interference to War of Will, Bodexpress and Long Range Toddy on the far turn.
It was the first time in the history that a Kentucky Derby winner has been disqualified for an incident during the running of the race.
From the many times that I have watched the video, I think it’s nothing less than a miracle that War of Will did not clip Maximum Security’s heels on the far turn. Horse racing was extremely lucky that Maximum Security did not trigger a major spill when he veered out and caused interference.
If War of Will had tripped and fallen to unseat jockey Tyler Gaffalione, it would have happened with many horses racing behind them. In all likelihood, there would have been a multi-horse spill similar to a horrific pile-up on a freeway. Numerous horses and jockeys could have been severely injured, or possibly even worse. No doubt such a grisly scene would have been shown over and over and over on television and depicted on social media, which would have given horse racing the blackest of black eyes during a very sensitive time in the sport.
WHO IS THE BEST 3-YEAR-OLD DIRT ROUTER?
Horseracingnation’s Reinier Macatangay wrote: “As for Hot Rod Charlie, there is an argument to label him as the best 3-year-old dirt router right now.”
I can’t say that I see eye-to-eye with Mactangay.
The belief here is that the best 3-year-old dirt router right now is Essential Quality. Yes, that would be the 3-year-old who won the Belmont Stakes, a Grade I route race at 1 1/2 miles, by 1 1/4 lengths over none other than Hot Rod Charlie.
Granted, Hot Rod Charlie ran a marvelous race in defeat by finishing second in the Belmont despite going so fast early that he completed the initial quarter-mile in :22.78. It was the fastest opening quarter in the history of the Belmont when contested at 1 1/2 miles. The Belmont was first run in 1867.
But when Essential Quality finished second in the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby, his lone loss to date, he also ran quite well. According to Trakus, Essential Quality traveled 68 feet (approximately seven to eight lengths) farther in the Kentucky Derby than Medina Spirit, who finished first. Hot Rod Charlie ended up third, a half-length behind Mandaloun and only a head in front of Essential Quality.
According to Trakus, Essential Quality traveled 48 feet farther than Hot Rod Charlie in both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont.
Who has the bigger Beyer Speed Figure this year? That would be Essential Quality and his 109. Hot Rod Charlie’s top Beyer this year has been a 108.
Who ranks higher in the latest NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll? That would be Essential Quality, who is No. 6. Hot Rod Charlie? Heck, he’s not even the second-highest ranking 3-year-old male. Mandaloun is No. 9. Hot Rod Charlie is No. 11.
Who has won the most races? Essential Quality has six career victories to his credit from seven starts, with three of his wins coming this year. Hot Rod Charlie has just two victories from 10 career starts, with only one win this year, though in fairness to him he did finish first in the Haskell before having his number taken down.
Look, I think a lot of Hot Rod Charlie. He showed once again in the Haskell that he is one of the leading 3-year-old males. And perhaps during the remainder of the 2021 he will prove that he is indeed the best 3-year-old dirt router, as Macatangay says. But for the reasons cited above, Essential Quality has a stronger claim of being considered the best 3-year-old dirt router in the land at this time.
HOT ROD CHARLIE, MANDALOUN GET 100+ BEYER
“Based on the Beyers for the most recent four Haskell winners, it seems to me that something like a 99 to 101 might be sufficient to get the job done this Saturday,” I wrote last week.
Hot Rod Charlie was credited with a 102 Beyer Speed Figure for his Haskell performance. Of course, Mandaloun, who was just a nose shy of Hot Rod Charlie at the finish, likewise received a 102 Beyer for the Haskell, a career-best figure for him.
When racing with blinkers, Hot Rod Charlie recorded Beyer Speed Figures of 99 in the Louisiana Derby, 100 in the Kentucky Derby and 108 in the Belmont Stakes prior to having blinkers removed for the Haskell. It should be noted that without blinkers, Hot Rod Charlie still managed to post a triple-digit Beyer in the Haskell.
Below are the Beyers for the Haskell winners going back to 1991 (the figures prior to this year are listed in the 2021American Racing Manual, which is now digital only and available for free on The Jockey Club’s website):
2021 Mandaloun (102)*
2020 Authentic (100)
2019 Maximum Security (102)
2018 Good Magic (98)
2017 Girvin (95)
2016 Exaggerator (101)
2015 American Pharoah (109)
2014 Bayern (111)
2013 Verrazano (116)
2012 Paynter (107)
2011 Coil (96)
2010 Lookin At Lucky (106)
2009 Rachel Alexandra (116)
2008 Big Brown (106)
2007 Any Given Saturday (113)
2006 Bluegrass Cat (106)
2005 Roman Ruler (108)
2004 Lion Heart (109)
2003 Peace Rules (109)
2002 War Emblem (112)
2001 Point Given (106)
2000 Dixie Union (111)
1999 Menifee (110)
1998 Coronado’s Quest (110)
1997 Touch Gold (114)
1996 Skip Away (113)
1995 Serena’s Song (110)
1994 Holy Bull (115)
1993 Kissin Kris (108)
1992 Technology (108)
1991 Lost Mountain (107)
*Mandaloun finished second, then was elevated to first via the disqualification of Hot Rod Charlie, who also received a 102 Beyer Speed Figure
FOLLOWING SEA DISAPPOINTS
My top pick in the Haskell was Following Sea. Trained by Todd Pletcher, Following Sea was sent off as the third choice in the wagering at 7-2. Hot Rod Charlie was backed down to 4-5 favoritism. Mandaloun was 3-1. Midnight Bourbon was 5-1.
Even though Following Sea was permitted to set a less-than-sizzling early pace, he did not put up a fight on the far turn when Midnight Bourbon took the lead. Though Following Sea’s 18 1/2-length margin of defeat was mitigated because he was checked during the stretch drive when trying to avoid the fallen rider, this was pretty much a dud of performance by Following Sea.
Pletcher has expressed the thought that Following Sea ran on what was not a typical inside speed-favoring Monmouth Park main track. The 2021 Hall of Famer has said that he was worried as the day unfolded that the track was not going to play to Following Sea’s strengths, but that they were not about to take a horse who has been showing speed in sprint races and try to rate him off the pace.
As Pletcher also has noted, Following Sea was giving up a lot of seasoning and experience to some really good horses in the Haskell. While Pletcher felt the fractions that Following Sea set were reasonable, as he put it, the colt was all-in at the quarter pole.
“I think he’s a better horse than that,” Pletcher was quoted as saying by the DRF’s Hersh. “We’ll regroup and see how he’s training and come up with a plan that may or may not include the Allen Jerkens [a Grade I race to be contested at seven furlongs Aug. 28 at Saratoga].”
Meanwhile, Pletcher now is training the extremely talented 3-year-old colt Life is Good. The Kentucky-bred Into Mischief colt, formerly conditioned by fellow Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, arrived at Pletcher’s Saratoga barn last Saturday from Kentucky.
Life Is Good is undefeated in three career starts. He has not raced since winning Santa Anita’s Grade II San Felipe Stakes by eight lengths on March 6. Life Is Good recorded a 107 Beyer Speed Figure in the San Felipe.
Medina Spirit ran second in the San Felipe and would go on to finish first in the Kentucky Derby and third in the Preakness Stakes.
Life Is Good emerged from a splendid six-furlong workout in 1:11.40 at Santa Anita on March 30 with a hind ankle injury that required surgery and knocked him out of the Triple Crown events.
As I wrote earlier, I think Essential Quality is the best 3-year-old dirt router at this time. But considering what I saw from Life Is Good earlier this year, I believe there is a possibility that he could prove to be the best 3-year-old dirt router before 2021 is over.
THIS WEEK’S NTRA TOP THOROUGHBRED POLL
Mandaloun and Althiqa are newcomers to the Top 10 in this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll.
Althiqa won last Saturday’s Grade I Diana Stakes on the grass at Saratoga. The 4-year-old Great Britain-bred Dark Angel filly now is two for two in this country. She took the Grade I Just a Game Stakes on the turf June 5 at Belmont Park in her U.S. debut.
Below is the Top 10 in this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 280 Letruska (13)
2. 245 Maxfield (5)
3. 216 Domestic Spending (6)
4. 207 Silver State (3)
5. 181 Essential Quality (3)
6. 122 Knicks Go
7. 102 Mystic Guide (2)
8. 81 Gamine
9. 47 Mandaloun
10. 45 Althiqa