05/27/2003 11:00PM

Met Mile has glorious history


LAS VEGAS - As the most prestigious one-mile dirt stakes race in the United States, the Metropolitan Handicap has a rich history. Victories by Gun Bow (1965), Bold Lad (1966), Buckpasser (1967), In Reality (1968), Arts and Letters (1969), and Nodouble (1970) are deeply entrenched in the memory of racing fans growing up in the 1960's.

Eddie Neloy had a remarkable three-year winning streak in the storied race with Gun Bow, Bold Lad, and Buckpasser. Without his arch-rival, Kelso, Gun Bow was alone at the top in 1965 when he won the Metropolitan Handicap under high weight of 130 pounds, defeating Chieftain who carried 117. The champion racemare Affectionately finished third under 121 pounds.

Bold Lad, champion 2-year-old of 1964 under the tutelage of Hall of Fame trainer Bill Winfrey, returned from knee surgery at 3 to capture four straight races as a 4-year-old in 1966 for Neloy. Bold Lad's best moment came in his scintillating victory under 132 pounds in the 1966 Metropolitan. Sitting off a sizzling half-mile run in less than 45 seconds, Bold Lad went after the speedy Hedevar (who later became famous as the "rabbit" for stablemate Damascus in the Damascus-Dr. Fager duels) to whom he was giving 19 pounds.

Bold Lad's time for the six furlongs was 1:08.60 en route to his 2 1/2-length victory in 1:34.20. It was a flashback to the brilliance he demonstrated at 2, but sadly it was to be his last victory. Under 135 pounds in the Suburban Handicap at 1 1/4 miles on a terribly humid July 4, Bold Lad set the pace but gave way in the final half-mile and finished sixth. He was retired shortly before he was to run in the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga.

Buckpasser, who was Horse of the Year at 3 in 1966, got up to win the Metropolitan in 1967 under 130 pounds over Yonder, a Bold Ruler colt who carried only 108 pounds. At the time, the Metropolitan, Suburban, and Brooklyn handicaps comprised what was called the Handicap Triple Crown, and to that point only three horses had ever swept all three - Whisk Broom II (1913), Tom Fool (1953), and Kelso (1961).

After Buckpasser's heart-stopping victory over Ring Twice in the Suburban Handicap under 133 pounds, in which he appeared hopelessly beaten in deep stretch only to surge to victory in time, there was great anticipation of a fourth Handicap Triple Crown winner.

But trainer Allen Jerkens, who was building his reputation as the "giant killer," had Handsome Boy at his best for the Brooklyn Handicap. Carrying only 116 pounds compared to Buckpasser's crushing 136 pounds, Handsome Boy wired the field at 1 1/4 miles. Buckpasser finished second, and did not race again until October when he met 3-year-olds Damascus and Dr. Fager in the 1 1/4-mile Woodward Stakes, in what was billed as the "Race of the Century."

Damascus cruised to a 10-length victory over Buckpasser, who finished a half-length in front of a weakened Dr. Fager, who dueled through six furlongs with Hedevar in 1:09.20. Not to take anything away from Damascus, who was absolutely brilliant that day, but Buckpasser was far from his best and the Woodward turned out to be his final race. Of course, Dr. Fager and Damascus resumed one of the greatest rivalries in racing history at 4 the following year.

In the absence of Dr. Fager and Damascus, In Reality shined in the 1968 Metropolitan Handicap, but was injured shortly after the victory. Fortunately for the Thoroughbred breed, he went on to become a great stallion and saved the Man o' War sire line from obsolescence.

Nodouble, champion older horse in 1969 and 1970, won the 1970 Metropolitan Handicap in dramatic fashion over Reviewer (the sire of Ruffian), who was a miracle of modern medicine. After two critical surgeries at 2 and 3, when he won the Sapling, Bay Shore, and Gotham Stakes, Reviewer returned better than ever at 4. After putting away the speedy Tyrant in deep stretch in the Met after battling through a half-mile in 45 seconds and six furlongs in 1:09.40, Reviewer was on his way to victory but never saw Nodouble, who got up by a head while racing far out in the middle of the track.

Met a stallion-making race

A multiple graded stakes winner with a very strong pedigree, Aldebaran was a promising stallion prospect. But with his victory in this year's Metropolitan Handicap, his future value as a stallion is now unlimited. A half-brother to stakes winners Good Journey and Sea of Showers, he is a son of Mr. Prospector from the immediate female family that produced Denon, Spinning World, Redoute's Choice, Blush With Pride, Xaar, Yagli, Domedriver, El Gran Senor, Compliance, and Try My Best. Aldebaran will be extremely popular when he goes to stud.

Saarland silenced his critics with a strong second-place finish and is finally ready to fulfill the potential of his pedigree, as a son of Unbridled out of multiple stakes winner Versailles Treaty. Injured at 3 in last year's Kentucky Derby, he returned last November to win a one-mile allowance race and was set to race in Florida this past winter only to be sidelined once again.

He returned in April, winning another one-mile allowance race and his good second to Najran, when that colt equaled Dr. Fager's North American record of 1:32.20 for one mile over an unusually glib surface, set him up perfectly for the Met.

Aldebaran, now 5, and Saarland, 4, add much-needed depth to the older division. Saarland, in particular, figures to be much better in distances over one mile. If he stays healthy and continues to progress as his pedigree suggests, Saarland could be a major force in this year's Breeders' Cup Classic.