OCEANPORT, N.J. -- The Haskell Invitational never had it so good.
"This," beams Monmouth Park general manager Bob Kulina, "is the deepest field we've ever had."
No doubt, the $1 million Haskell not only helps kick off the second season for 3-year-olds following the grueling Triple Crown campaign, but the winner Sunday becomes the leader in thoroughbred racing's most popular division.
This star-studded field includes Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky and the runner-ups from each race, Ice Box in the Derby and First Dude in the Preakness.
Add rising star Trappe Shot, improving Afleet Again and Uptowncharlybrown and the usual long shot in Our Dark Knight, and racing fans would be hard-pressed to find a comparable field.
"When you have the main players in a big race like this, that's so important in our industry," says Bob Baffert, the Hall of Fame trainer of Lookin At Lucky. "This is always a very exciting race, and it's never won by a bad horse."
The other leading 3-year-old, Belmont winner Drosselmeyer, is sidelined for the year with an ankle injury.
Baffert is pumped for what has become his annual trek from California to the Jersey Shore. Lookin At Lucky is the lukewarm 5-2 morning-line favorite as Baffert seeks a record fourth Haskell victory.
"I think they should have a huge crowd with the caliber of horses they have gathered up for this race," says Baffert. "I've always had a lot of success there and I like going back to where we've had a lot of success."
Never before has a Derby winner and a Preakness winner run in the Haskell, so a little history will be made as well in the 43rd edition of Monmouth's showcase race.
Last year, Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra defeated Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird by six lengths, and the year before it was Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown rebounding from his Belmont loss in taking the Haskell.
The field for the 1 1/8-mile Haskell is so tough that the Derby winner is just the co-second choice.
After winning the Derby by 2 1/2 lengths on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs, Super Saver, with Calvin Borel aboard, finished eighth in the Preakness after tiring in the stretch at Pimlico.
The Haskell, though, is a chance for Super Saver to reassert himself.
"I do think he needs to run well and we're very hopeful he will," says Elliott Walden, the racing manager for WinStar Farm, the owner and breeder of Super Saver.
He also dismisses the notion that the horse is being overlooked.
"We're excited about the opportunity that presents itself, but you know, the Derby is the Derby and I think he is the deserving winner," adds Walden. "Lookin At Lucky and Super Saver both won one, so it will be interesting to see what happens. We want Super Saver to be the 3-year-old champion, and I think the rest of the year is going to decide that. This is a high quality field, so we're going for the brass ring."
Trainer Todd Pletcher believes Super Saver is well-rested and ready to go. The colt worked five furlongs in 1:00.77 at Saratoga earlier in the week.
"He's put on weight, he's bigger and stronger and looks in great form," says Pletcher. "He's been calm and relaxed and on his toes when he needs to be."
On Thursday, Baffert's confidence was shaken when Lookin At Lucky drew the No. 1 post position. Last time that happened was the Derby, when the bay colt was roughed up by other horses twice, nearly went down once, and finished sixth as the favorite.
In the Preakness, Lookin At Lucky drew lucky No. 7, had a new rider in Martin Garcia replacing Garrett Gomez, and enjoyed a perfect trip in his three-quarter-length victory.
"His biggest problem in races is the draw," says Baffert of his 2-year-old champion who has seven wins in 10 starts for owners Karl Watson, Mike Pegram and Paul Weitman. "He's the most poorly drawn horse I've ever had. Sometimes he overcomes it and sometimes he doesn't."
Nonetheless, Baffert is eager for the gates to open, especially after his colt posted a five-furlong workout in a blazing 58.60 seconds at Del Mar to start the week.
"He's a gritty little horse, and he looks great," says Baffert. "He looks like he's in the zone. I'm looking for a big race, and if he gets a clean trip, he'll get the job done."
The rest of the field can hardly be dismissed.
Trappe Shot is the 3-1 co-second choice with Super Saver, despite never having competed in a graded stakes. The colt trained by Kiaran McLaughlin comes into the Haskell on a four-race winning streak, including a 2 1/2-length win in the Long Branch on July 10 at Monmouth.
"We know he likes the track, and he should handle the distance, but the competition is different," says McLaughlin. "There are a few proven horses in there. Whoever wins will move to the head of the 3-year-old class."
McLaughlin also trains Uptowncharlybrown, who ran fifth in the Belmont but was disqualified to 12th after it was discovered a weight pad had fallen.
Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito sends out Ice Box and Our Dark Knight. Ice Box won the Florida Derby at odds of 20-1, then ran second in the Derby and a tiring ninth in the Belmont.
"This is the toughest Haskell I've seen," says Zito. "But I'm hoping for an honest pace, so my colt (Ice Box) can come with his run like he always does."
First Dude is ready to go again after running second in the Preakness and third in the Belmont for trainer Dale Romans.
"He seems to have come out of the Triple Crown as good or better than he went in," says Romans of his first ever Haskell entry. "He doesn't have to be on the lead, but if he breaks sharply, he'll be there. If someone wants to go, then he can sit off. It's a very tough race."
Afleet Again is the local favorite. The Pegasus runner-up is trained by Butch Reid Jr., and will be ridden by Monmouth's leading rider Joe Bravo.
"I think the horse is going to have a really good chance," says Bravo. "He's going to be a pretty big menace to deal with."
The field, from the rail out is: Lookin At Lucky (Martin Garcia, 5-2); Afleet Again (Joe Bravo, 12-1); Ice Box (Jose Lezcano, 9/2); First Dude (Ramon Dominguez, 6-1); Our Dark Knight (Elvis Trujillo, 15-1); Super Saver (Calvin Borel, 3-1); Uptowncharlybrown (Rajiv Maragh, 15-1); and Trappe Shot (Alan Garcia, 3-1).