The First 50: A profile of the Haskell Invitational

Jul 24, 2018 Vance Hanson/

The $1 million Haskell Invitational (G1) will be run Sunday, but August 3 marks the actual 50th anniversary of the race's first appearance on the Monmouth Park schedule.

Inaugurated as a more lucratively-enticing way of attracting some of the nation's leading three-year-olds to the Jersey Shore than Monmouth's Choice Stakes had previously, the Haskell then as now faced weekend competition. While Sunday's renewal will again vie for horses with Saturday's Jim Dandy (G2), the 1968 Haskell, worth $75,000, faced stiff competition from the $100,000 American Derby at Arlington Park run on the same day.

The American Derby might have won that battle, attracting Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Forward Pass and future dual champion older horse Nodouble, but that first Haskell (then known as the Monmouth Invitational) was not without merit. Though future hurdler Balustrade posted a 33-1 upset over Chompion, the latter came back two weeks later to defeat Forward Pass in the Travers at Saratoga.

It's also worth noting that the second betting choice in that first Haskell was a colt named Exclusive Native. Ninth that day, Exclusive Native entered the history books more than a decade later when siring two Kentucky Derby winners in a three-year span: Triple Crown winner Affirmed in 1978 and the filly Genuine Risk in 1980.

As any close observer of racing could tell you, the fortunes of the American Derby eventually ebbed and those of the Haskell flowed. The American Derby still carries a purse of $100,000 and long ago found a home on the turf. In contrast, the Haskell is generally viewed as the opening act to the second half of the season for three-year-olds. Its value rose to $1 million two decades ago.

Through its first decade and a half, the Haskell was won by 1975 champion Wajima, 1979 Belmont Stakes (G1) winner Coastal and 1983 Preakness victor Deputed Testamony. Starting in 1985, with an appearance by Derby winner Spend a Buck, the Haskell gained significant steam. The battles involving Bet Twice, Alysheba, and Lost Code in 1987, and between Forty Niner and Seeking the Gold the following year, to this day are considered among the most thrilling showdowns of that era.

The Haskell winner's roll of the last quarter-century reads like a 'Who's Who': Holy Bull, Skip Away, Point Given, War Emblem, Big Brown, Lookin at Lucky, and Triple Crown winner American Pharoah all graced the Monmouth Park winner's circle, as did the fillies Rachel Alexandra and Serena's Song. The list of the vanquished is similarly impressive.

On Sunday, Good Magic will seek to become the latest juvenile champion to come back and win a race that, for five decades, has more than exceeded its founders' expectations.

(Bill Denver/Equi-Photo)

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