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Haskell Longshots All In the Family

Locals, longshots, brothers-in-law… Call them what you’d like, but successful trainers Eddie Plesa Jr. and Jason Servis will be representing the home team in Sunday’s GI Betfair.com Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. Plesa is set to saddle Live Oak Plantation homebred Awesome Slew (Awesome Again), recently third in the GIII Pegasus S. June 19, while Servis brings GIII Withers S. hero Sunny Ridge (Holy Bull) back from a five-month layoff to face the likes of once-beaten champion and GI Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist (Uncle Mo) in the $1-million centerpiece of the Monmouth meet.

Plesa, who is married to Servis’s sister Laurie, noted that although both Monmouth-based trainers will be running locals against the heavy hitters, there are not many similarities between their two horses.

“Jason is a great horsemen,” Plesa said. “His horse is a little different than mine. My horse hasn’t proven anything yet, really, but his horse has done all that. He’s coming off a layoff with credentials. My horse has the foundation recently, and I have to prove that we belong. If we didn’t think we had a chance, in all honesty, we wouldn’t be in the race.”

While New Jersey-bred Sunny Ridge has been sidelined since a fourth-place finish in the GIII Gotham S. at Aqueduct Mar. 5, Awesome Slew will be making his third start back from an extended layoff of his own in the Haskell.

“He’s kind of been short-changed so far in his career,” Plesa observed. “After his second start [fourth in the GII Sanford S. at Saratoga last July], we had to give him time off and send him back to Ocala to Live Oak. They sent him back to me, and I thought there was a good chance we’d be able to get him ready for the big races [on the Kentucky Derby trail], and it didn’t happen. He got very sick on me, and he’s recuperated from that and bounced back, but he’s always been behind the curve, so to speak. We’ve been trying to play catch-up, as far as the 3-year-old picture is concerned.”

A rallying winner of a six-furlong allowance test in his first start in nearly 10 months at Monmouth May 21 [video], the son of SW and MGSP Slewfoundmoney (Seeking the Gold) recently took the lead in upper stretch before leveling off late in the Pegasus [video]. Despite the challenges posed by the bay’s inconsistent schedule, Plesa said he believes he has his trainee primed to run the best race of his life after posting two strong one-mile works over the local strip in recent weeks.

“He wasn’t 100% fit [for the Pegasus], but it was the right race to run in,” Plesa continued. “He came out of the last race 110%. Two things might have happened to him: he might have gotten a little bit tired, and I know Paco Lopez thought he moved a bit too early on him. We’ve been training him with blinkers, and I worked him the last two times with blinkers, and I think that will help him also. He’ll be going into this race the first time I’ve really run him where I’ve said to myself he’s 110%.”

With fitness of little concern at this stage in the horse’s development, Plesa acknowledged that the level of competition will pose the sternest test for Awesome Slew. Nevertheless, he said that the prospect of running the colt out of his own stall in a familiar setting makes taking a shot at the Jersey Shore track’s biggest prize more appealing.

“We decided, let’s go ahead and go for it and see what he can do,” the 67-year-old conditioner commented. “It’s a home-team advantage, as far as we’re concerned. We don’t have to ship anywhere. He’ll get up in the morning in the same stall, drinking the same type of water, in the same surroundings.”

Like Plesa, Servis provided a healthy does of realism when reflecting about what it would take to win the Haskell. In his case, Sunny Ridge has not competed in five months and will be attempting to navigate the longest distance of his young career.

“It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t get a prep and he’s coming off a five-month layoff going a mile and an eighth against the best 3-year-olds,” said Servis, who added that he would be thrilled to run third or fourth. “He’s a gelding, so knock on wood, he’s got a good four, five, six years in front of him. I think he could really bang out some serious money…We’re just going to give it a shot. You can’t count me out.”

In Sunny Ridge, Servis has a runner that truly represents the local team, carrying the colors of Dennis Drazin, advisor to the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and Darby Development [read more here]. Drazin and company assumed control of operations of the storied Oceanport oval in 2012 after the state of New Jersey essentially abandoned the horse racing industry to sink or float on its own.

“Dennis is the best, he saved Monmouth Park,” said Servis, who hails from a family of horsemen that includes his brother John. “I don’t think we’d be here today if he and Darby Development didn’t take it over.”

As for the prospect of some friendly competition between brothers in law and Monmouth regulars, Servis said he remains focused on his own horse while welcoming extended family up for Haskell weekend.

Plesa echoed Servis’s sentiment while joking that he may propose a simple wager to his brother-in-law: “Maybe I’ll say to Jason that if either one of us would be lucky to win the race, the winner will pick up the check for dinner that night.”

 

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