(Trainer Richard Mandella / Photos by Gene McLean)
From the Monmouth Park Media Team / Lynne Snierson:
It took Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella 23 years to make it back to the Grade 1, $1 million TVG.com Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park. Geaux Rocket Ride made it well worth the wait on Saturday with a 1¾-length victory over Kentucky Derby winner Mage.
“He was the right horse for the right race at the right time,” said the Southern California-based Mandella, who won the Haskell with Dixie Union in 2000 in his only other appearance in the race.
A crowd of 35,286, betting a Haskell day record $21,359,642, saw Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith win his record fourth Haskell. He previously won with Authentic in 2020, Coronado’s Quest in 1998 and Holy Bull in 1994.
Ridden expertly by Smith, Geaux Rocket Ride, a 3-year-old son of Candy Ride (ARG), rated behind the early speed set by 61-1 longshot Awesome Strong before the Bob Baffert trained and even-money favorite Arabian Knight took over the lead.
Smith moved Geaux Rocket Ride off the rail going into the clubhouse turn, stalked the pacesetters, and moved up nearing the far turn to enter into a fierce battle with Arabian Knight.
Geaux Rocket Ride then hooked up with Mage, who was closing fast in upper stretch, turning back that challenge by the eighth pole, and drawing clear under strong urging.
He traveled the 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in the final time of 1:49.52. Arabian Knight faded to third, two lengths behind Mage.
“When Arabian Knight went out to the front I was very happy that the two horse (Awesome Strong) went out there with him,” said Smith. “He wasn’t getting away with anything easy and on his own, which I wasn’t going to let happen if someone else didn’t do it.
“But I was glad someone else did the dirty work and I was able to tip out and just relax. I always felt like I had a lot of horse left, but you don’t know. When you get to them, they might, too, so I was just happy.”
Mandella said that he and Smith discussed strategy before the race and all went according to plan.
“We talked about it and the horse has good natural speed and we realized that Baffert’s horse (Arabian Knight) on the outside was fast and planning to go to the lead, most likely,” said Mandella. “We thought we’d just let him run out of there a little bit, and he settled so nicely in his last race that we’d let that happen unless everybody took back. They didn’t take back. We did.”
Though Mage was closing fast down the lane Mandella didn’t lose heart.
“No. I was confident all the way,” he said.
Mage, who finished third in the Preakness Stakes last time out and then skipped the Belmont, was returning from a two-month break and his trainer felt that figured into the outcome.
Gustavo Delgado, Sr., the trainer of Mage said, “This horse is very, very good. I think that five works, six works, would have been better, but I had only four (going into the Haskell). This race was very good for him. This sets him up going forward. It’s a long year. There are many races more.”
That same sentiments were expressed by Jimmy Barnes, the long-time top assistant to Baffert, when assessing the performance of Arabian Knight. The son of Uncle Mo, for whom Zedan Racing Stables purchased for $2.3 million as a 2-year-old, had only had two previous starts, the last of which was six months ago when winning the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
“It’s quite possible that the long layoff caught up to him,” said Barnes. “He hasn’t run since the end of January. He jumped out of there running and he was just third best today. We’re just starting the second half of the schedule (for three-year-olds) and there are a lot of races left to run.”
Geaux Rocket Ride is owned by Pin Oak Stud. Dana and Jim Bernhard of Baton Rouge, La. purchased the iconic racing and breeding operation owned by the Abercrombie Family since the 1950s when Mrs. Josephine Abercrombie passed away last year at the age of 95.
The colt was bought as a yearling as a birthday present from her husband. Geaux Rocket Ride, who was hammered down at $350,000, is the first horse purchased by the new owners of Pin Oak Stud. This was their first Grade 1 score.
“This is fantastic,” said an elated Dana Bernhard.
In addition to the $1 million purse and the Grade 1 status earned, the Haskell victory guaranteed Geaux Rocket Ride a spot in the starting gate for the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita in November through the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series. The Classic will be contested at 1¼ miles on the main track.
“A mile and a quarter shouldn’t be a problem for him. This was a mile-and-an-eighth and he wasn’t stopping,” said Smith.
The complete order of finish in the Haskell after Geaux Rocket Ride, Mage, and Arabian Knight was Extra Anejo, Tapit Trice, Howgreatisnate, Salute the Stars, and Awesome Strong.
Geaux Rocket Ride paid $27.40 to win. He has now won three of his four starts and bankrolled $780,000.
Live racing returns on Sunday with first post at 12:40 p.m.