09/20/2004 11:00PM

Metropolitan goes after Little Brown Jug

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A crowd of more than 50,000 is expected to converge on the Delaware County Fairgrounds in Delaware, Ohio, for Thursday's $571,500 Little Brown Jug, a one-mile pace for 3-year-old Standardbreds that is the final and most lucrative leg of the harness racing Triple Crown.

The Jug, as the race has come to be known since its 1946 inception, is held over a crushed limestone and dirt course, which features especially wide, rounded curves that play to speed more than the Cane Pace at Freehold Raceway in New Jersey and the Messenger Stakes at Harrington Raceway in Delaware, its Triple Crown predecessors.

Such a bias would seem to favor the Chris Ryder-trained Metropolitan, who scored a wire-to-wire victory in the Sept. 14 Messenger.

"His early speed is crucial," said Ryder, a third-generation trainer and former jockey who used to ride Thoroughbreds in New Zealand. "I think he's unbeaten when he's been in the front."

Getting there from his assigned far outside post might be tough, though. He won the Messenger from post 1.

Unlike the do-or-die glory runs of Thoroughbred racing, the Jug provides a shot at redemption, as the 24-horse field is divided into three preliminary heats, each run for a purse of $68,580. The first three finishers in each heat then advance to the $308,610 second-heat final. Should one of the first-heat winners prevail in the second heat, the Jug is his. But if a new winner emerges, he and the the three first-heat winners then advance to a $57,150 winner-take-all race-off to determine the Jug victor. In this scenario, should the winner of the second heat not prevail in the race-off, he would still stand to pocket more purse money that the actual Jug champion.

Metropolitan's heat includes favored Timesareachanging, the Messenger runner-up, who finished in a dead heat for first with Western Terror, the first heat favorite, in the Cane Pace on Sept. 6.