Commentary

Munnings hot going into Haskell

Updated: August 1, 2009, 12:57 AM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

Munnings is going to beat her.

Rachel Alexandra, of course, is the big story in Sunday's $1.25 million Haskell at Monmouth Park, and she should be. She became the first filly to win the Preakness in 85 years and she obliterated fillies by a combined 39 lengths in her last two starts against her own sex. Rachel Alexandra is a phenomenon and will be the odds-on favorite in Sunday's race.

But she doesn't have to win, not against a horse as hot as Munnings. After starting off his year with a loss in an allowance race at Churchill Downs, he whipped good sprinters in the Woody Stephens and followed that with a solid win over older horses in the Tom Fool. In both wins, he left few doubts that he is among the fastest horses in the country, certainly fast enough to compete with Rachel Alexandra. His Beyer numbers in his last two starts are a 110 and a 111. Rachel Alexandra turned in a 108 and a 111 in her last two races. In this area, call it a draw.

It's the way that the race will likely unfold that gives the edge to Munnings. That he drew inside of Rachel Alexandra is a huge edge. That means that John Velazquez -- and not Calvin Borel on Rachel Alexandra -- can dictate the pace. Coming off sprints, Munnings should be geared up and more than capable of grabbing the early lead from Rachel Alexandra.

That will leave Rachel Alexandra in the stalking position, something she shouldn't be mind after coming from off the pace in her win against just two rivals in the Mother Goose. Yet, it will be a tough spot for her. If she goes too fast, she will cook both herself and Munnings. Rather, she'll likely sit just behind Munnings, putting herself in a position where she's going to have to run down a very tough competitor. It's not going to be easy.

The only knock on Munnings -- and it's a pretty big one -- is that he's never won beyond seven furlongs. But he's never really had a chance. He ran a creditable second going a mile in last year's Champagne and clearly wasn't at his best over the synthetic surface when finishing tenth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita. He still has to prove that he can go this far, but trainer Todd Pletcher must think that he can. Otherwise, he wouldn't be in this race and would, instead, be lying in wait for the Grade 1 King's Bishop, a seven-furlong race for 3-year-olds at Saratoga. Wisely, Pletcher has picked out the perfect track for Munnings' first foray at a mile-and-an-eighth, a track where his early speed is a major asset.

Munnings won't be a big price, but he'll certainly represent more value at the betting windows than Rachel Alexandra, who figures to be 3-5 or lower. It will be Munnings leading them across the wire, followed by Rachel Alexandra and then Papa Clem.

The Haskell tops a huge weekend for the 3-year-old division. Here's how I see the West Virginia Derby and the Jim Dandy:

Big Drama should defeat Mine That Bird in West Virginia. He's run only one poor race this year and that was when he had gate problems in the Preakness. Throw that race out and his credentials are very strong. Plus, it looks like he'll be the only speed in the West Virginia Derby, which has a six-horse field. Mine That Bird proved throughout the Triple Crown campaign that he is tough and legitimate, but he's going to have a very difficult time running down Big Drama from his customary spot in the rear.

In the Jim Dandy, I'm willing to give Warrior's Reward one more chance. He was so highly regarded before the Dwyer by Calvin Borel that the jockey essentially took off Mine That Bird to commit to him. Sent off at 4-5 in the Dwyer, he lost the race at the start when stumbling badly and dropping far behind the leaders. He had no chance of winning, but still got in gear in the stretch and made up a ton of ground late to finish third.

In the widest open of the three races, he's the pick, but will no doubt have his hands full with Charitable Man. He looked terrific winning the Peter Pan before he tired and ran fourth in the Belmont. Most likely, he didn't care for the mile-and-a-half distance, but should be back at his best now that he's been shortened up to a mile-and-an-eighth.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com

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