LAUREL -- Seven weeks after their dramatic finish in the Belmont Stakes, Hansel and Strike the Gold get their first and last tuneups this weekend for a rematch in the Travers Stakes.
Hansel is the solid favorite in today's $500,000 Haskell Invitational Handicap at Monmouth Park in New Jersey, and Strike the Gold is favored in the $150,000-added Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga Race Course tomorrow. The colts are being pointed to the $1 million Travers on Aug. 17 at Saratoga.
The Haskell and Jim Dandy, both 1 1/8 -mile races, will be simulcast to Laurel Race Course and the Pimlico intertrack facility.
Hansel won a rubber match in the Belmont when edging Strike the Gold by a head. Hansel won the Preakness with Strike the Gold sixth after Strike the Gold won the Kentucky Derby with Hansel 10th.
Trainer Nick Zito decided on the Jim Dandy for Strike the Gold, he said, largely because he believes a race over the track will be beneficial. Hansel's trainer, Frank Brothers, wanted to do the same for his colt, but it would have meant running Hansel without the bleeder medication Lasix twice in three weeks. Lasix is not permitted for racing purposes in New York, so Brothers opted for the Haskell, in which Hansel will be treated with the diuretic.
Hansel has tactical speed that may help him overcome a pronounced speed bias at Monmouth. He also may have to overcome sloppy conditions; rain is being forecast.
"He doesn't seem to mind an off track," said Pam Fitzgerald, the colt's exercise rider. "When he was young, he didn't seem to gallop over it as well as he does now. While he may not like it the best, he can handle it."
At Saratoga, nine horses were entered yesterday for the Jim Dandy. The race marks the return of Tong Po, the Maryland-based colt who won the Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico in March but was sidelined with sore shins soon thereafter.
Trainer Leon Blusiewicz said yesterday that the Private Account colt "has never trained better" than in the last few weeks, when Blusiewicz sent him to Saratoga to prepare for the Jim Dandy and 1 1/4 -mile Travers.
"[Jockey Angel] Cordero thinks he's something special," said Blusiewicz, who lives in Towson. "He flew up here three times [from New York] to work him in the mornings." Cordero will ride the colt tomorrow.
Tong Po has raced just three times. He lost his debut, broke his maiden, then won the Tesio by eight lengths.
Besides Strike the Gold, Tong Po will face Fly So Free, the 1990 2-year-old champion. Despite the strong opposition and a layoff of more than four months, Blusiewicz is undaunted.
"I've got to have this race anyway," he said. "It's something he has to do if we want to go in the Travers.
"I still say this is the best horse I've ever laid hands on."
NOTES: Race conditions call for Monmouth to pay a $200,000 bonus to owner Joe Allbritton and $50,000 to Brothers if Hansel, the winner of 2 Triple Crown events, triumphs today. A clause was written as an incentive to attract winners of Triple Crown races. Strike the Gold could have run for $100,000 and $25,000 bonuses; a Triple Crown winner, $300,000 and $100,000. . . . The Haskell can be viewed live on ESPN today at 5 p.m. Post time is scheduled for 5:42. . . . Lost Mountain is entered in both the Haskell and Jim Dandy. Track conditions may decide which he'll contest. . . . Today's Governor's Cup at Laurel, once 1 of Maryland's top summer events, has drawn a field of 6. Other races for 3-year-olds have since overshadowed it. . . . Track officials unveiled a $4.15 million, 4-year renovation program for the Laurel and Pimlico backstretches at a news conference yesterday. . . . Trainer Kevin Witte registered the first victory of his career when No Fumar overcame a poor start to win the third race at Laurel yesterday.