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Scoping out the Met Mile
While 2006 Horse of the Year Invasor is gearing up for his summer campaign and the Triple Crown is getting an extra week off, Belmont Park will play host to one of the great races for older horses on the American racing calendar: the $600,000 Metropolitan Handicap on Monday, May 28.
Invasor, a convincing winner of the $6 million Dubai World Cup two months ago, is safe, sound, and training well for the 1 1/4-mile Suburban Handicap at Belmont on June 30, where he might face some of the horses who perform well in the Met.
As a handicapping puzzle, the 114-year old Met Mile always has been one of the most compelling races on the national racing calendar.
Not only has it been a forum for extraordinary performances by such legendary horses as Tom Fool, Native Dancer, Gallant Man, Kelso, Carry Back, Buckpasser, Forego, and more recently the outstanding Ghostzapper, the Met invariably provides one of the most challenging handicapping puzzles of the year.
In some years it even has matched Derby-class 3-year-olds against top-flight older horses. Three historic examples come quickly to mind:
H Arts and Letters's Met Mile victory in 1969 prior to his Belmont Stakes win over Derby and Preakness winner Majestic Prince.
H Conquistador Cielo's Met Mile win five days before he won the 1982 Belmont Stakes to begin Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens's record five straight victories in the Belmont.
H Holy Bull's Met Mile win in 1994, which foreshadowed his Horse of the Year campaign.
All were accomplished with sufficient weight concessions to the 3-year-olds, according to the ancient Jockey Club scale of weights.
This year's Met closed with 24 nominations, including the usual classy contingent from Todd Pletcher, who nominated a pair of 3-year-olds, Scat Daddy and King of the Roxy, along with older graded stakes sprint winners Keyed Entry and Half Ours, plus the talented Magna Graduate and Lawyer Ron, who between them have won 19 races and more than $3.8 million, mostly at distances longer than a mile.
While neither Pletcher 3-year-old is likely for the Met, the 4-year-old Lawyer Ron and the 5-year-old Magna Graduate will command significant support should either or both compete.
A winner of the 2006 Arkansas Derby when trained by Midwestern-based Bob Holthus, Lawyer Ron has won both of his starts this year for Pletcher.
Both of Lawyer Ron's 2007 victories were at Oaklawn Park, where Holthus developed the colt into a top flight 3-year-old who nevertheless had a penchant to assert himself prematurely at times. This year's version under Pletcher does seem more settled, and the three-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer expects Lawyer Ron to take that newfound maturity to a higher level of performance.
Magna Graduate, winner of 6 of his last 10 races dating back to the fall of 2005, was given time to recover from a poor performance in the 2006 Dubai World Cup. More recently, he was a dominant winner of the 1 1/16-mile Razorback at Oaklawn on March 9 and the 1 1/8-mile Excelsior at Aqueduct on April 7. On that evidence, Magna Graduate may be the betting favorite in the Met and will bring into the race one other credential that could play a role in the outcome: He won the one-turn Discovery Handicap at nine furlongs out of the Belmont chute on Breeders' Cup Day in October 2005.
Hardly a Pletcher-trained stakes carnival, the 2007 Met Mile figures to be fiercely competitive, as usual. Among the possible starters are several older horses in top form, including the consistent turf miler Silent Name, who won the seven-furlong Commonwealth Breeders' Cup by four lengths on the synthetic Polytrack at Keeneland on April 14, plus Corinthian, Saint Anddan, Wanderin Boy, Papi Chullo, Silver Wagon, and perhaps the top three finishers in the one-mile Westchester Handicap at Belmont on May 3 - Utopia, Political Force, and Sun King.
Corinthian, trained by Jimmy Jerkens, performed like a potential star when he handily defeated Belmont Stakes winner Jazil in an allowance race at Gulfstream in February. While he did narrowly win the Gulfstream Park Handicap in March, the oft-injured Corinthian was only fifth to Magna Graduate in the Excelsior Handicap at Aqueduct on April 7 after a poor start. Obviously, he will need to recover his best form to be a major threat in the Met.
Papi Chullo, a moderately accomplished 5-year-old, seemed vastly improved when he scored a dominating victory over respectable allowance foes at 1 1/16 miles over the track May 4, but he too will need to step up his game another notch to make a serious impact in this race.
Saint Anddan, a one-turn specialist, did flash considerable potential when he scored his first graded stakes victory in the Churchill Downs Handicap on the Kentucky Derby undercard. A repeat of that stalk-and-go performance at the mile distance would give Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel a realistic chance to score his third Met Mile victory in five years.
Wanderin Boy, winner of $777,000 in 16 career starts for Hall of Famer Nick Zito, gave Invasor a good battle in the 1 1/4-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup last fall and began his 2007 campaign with a facile win in the Grade 3 Alysheba Stakes at Churchill Downs on May 4. Always on or near the pace at longer distances around two turns, Wanderin Boy did score a convincing front-running victory in a one-turn mile allowance race on a muddy track at Belmont last June.
Sun King, also trained by Zito, was a sharp, stretch-running second to Silver Train in the 2006 Met Mile and an equally sharp second to Invasor in the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga. While not nearly as potent in any subsequent race, Sun King warmed up for his possible return to the Met with a surprising speed try when third in the Westchester. In that race, Sun King was moved up to second by the stewards after second-place finisher Political Force came over on him during the stretch run. The winner of the Westchester, the Godolphin Stable's Utopia, also was bumped around a bit in his excellent American debut.
A winner of nine races and more than $4 million, the 7-year-old Utopia has raced successfully against top-class milers throughout the world and convincingly won the Godolphin Mile at Nad Al Sheba on March 25, 2006 prior to his Westchester score. At the bottom line, Utopia may be the betting favorite in a gate filled with familiar American-based stakes winners, but from what he showed in the swiftly run, hotly contested Westchester, he will be the horse to beat.
Steve Davidowitz will be at Belmont Park on Met Mile Day, to sign copies of his new book, "The Best and Worst of Thoroughbred Racing," published by DRF Press.