Haskell Stakes 2023 Review: Geaux Rocket Ride Repels Mage

Geaux Rocket RideGeaux Rocket Ride did not have the race record of most of his rivals but he beat them easily in the $1,017,000 Haskell Invitational Stakes on July 22 at Monmouth Park. Sent off at 12/1 under Mike Smith, he beat the 4/1 second favorite and Kentucky Derby hero Mage by almost two lengths.

Geaux Rocket Ride’s 72-year-old Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella does not travel his horses to the Haskell from his California base unless he believes they have a great chance. He last saddled one in 2000, Dixie Union was the fourth choice of bettors at 5/1 but won for him too.

This three-year-old son of Candy Ride out of Beyond Grace, an Uncle Mo mare, was bred by Oxo Equine and purchased for $350,000 by Jim Bernhard as a yearling at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Select Yearling Sale. The colt was the first horse he had ever bought and was a birthday present for his wife, Dana.

Based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Bernhard now has more than 70 horses. He purchased the Pin Oak Stud in Kentucky in November 2022. He says he did what he needed to do to be successful and it has worked.

Geaux Rocket Ride came into the race much fresher than most of the pack. He had not been able to run in the Santa Anita Derby or his next race after suffering from a fever and a raised white blood cell count.

For the veteran Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith it was clearly a very emotional victory. It was his fourth Haskell score and he was full of praise for Mandella and Geaux Rocket Ride as he believed it was one of the deepest Haskell fields for some time. A few years ago Smith might have been riding Bob Baffert’s 6/5 favorite, the previously unbeaten Arabian Night owned by Zedan Stables. This son of Uncle Mo was a $2,300,000 purchase as a two-year-old and finished third under John Velazquez, depriving his trainer of a record-breaking tenth Haskell Stakes victory.

Baffert must have been disappointed with the result but Mage’s connections were pleased with his second-place finish. His trainer Gustavo Delgado had publicly disclosed that this son of Good Magic needed two months off after his third placing in the Preakness and was not fully fit, guessing he was around 80%. The Haskell was being used as a prep run for the Travers Stakes and Mage performed better than expected.

What happened in the race?

There was a moment of drama when gate six opened at the front before the start but the 37/1 shot Howgreatisnate went nowhere, held by a stalls handler, and was allowed to race. Arabian Knight broke well from his outside gate and Velazquez used the momentum to pass most of the pack and angle in towards the rail. Jorge Delgado’s 62/1 shot Awesome Strong broke swiftly from gate two under Jose Batista and grabbed the rail and the lead for the first three furlongs.

Geaux Rocket Ride was quickly away too from his inside gate but Smith did not push him to join the leaders. He let him gallop hugging the rail, two lengths behind the leading pair. Brad Cox’s Salute The Stars (5/1) tested Joel Rosario’s arm strength early on and was held behind him in fourth followed by a line of three horses led by Mage.

Mage was in the center of the trio. Steve Asmussen’s Extra Anejo (8/1), a $1,350,000 yearling purchase for Winchell Thoroughbreds who had posted a good time when winning a minor race at Ellis Park, was on his outside. Howgreatisnate was on his inside. The gray winner of the grade one Blue Grass at Keeneland who placed third in the Belmont Stakes, Tapit Trice (5/1), trailed the pack as they approached the first turn.

Arabian Knight took the lead before the quarter mile was covered in 22.80 seconds and raced half a length in front of Awesome Strong on his outside. Geaux Rocket Ride drifted wide on the turn allowing Salute The Stars and Howgreatisnate to sneak up the inside, closely pursued by Tapit Trice.

Smith made his move on Geaux Rocket Ride approaching the final turn as Awesome Strong dropped back. Mage was also pushed forward on his outside. Arabian Knight weakened as they entered the stretch leaving Mage and Geaux Rocket Ride to fight it out. Mage drew alongside mid-stretch but Smith’s willing partner kept finding for him approaching the wire and completed the one mile and an eighth distance in a time of 1 minute 49.52 seconds.

Arabian Knight was beaten four lengths into third, two lengths ahead of Extra Anejo. Tapit Trice and Howgreatisnate finished behind him in that order. Salute The Stars predictably weakened in the final quarter after racing so keenly and only had Awesome Strong behind him.

Where next for Geaux Rocket Ride?

Immediately after the Haskell, Mandella said that he was not keen to push Geaux Rocket Ride to run in the Travers Stakes. He thought it was the wrong thing to do as the colt had been put under enough pressure already. Geaux Rocket Ride’s previous health issues suggest he is not the most robust individual. Mage’s connections were probably delighted to hear that they would not have to face him next time.

The Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park in November would usually be the ultimate target now Geaux Rocket Ride’s starting berth is secured by his Haskell win but Mandella is aware that the race is another big step up for his trainee. He is always pragmatic and will probably not run his horse if he thinks it will not suit him. He is considering the Pacific Classic but everything will depend on how well Geaux Rocket Ride recovers from his win and the traveling.