Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Focus Shifts to Belmont for the Runhappy Met Mile

Racing
Mitole held off a late charge from McKinzie to win the 2019 Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap, part of a stellar season that would earn him champion male sprinter honors at the Eclipse Awards. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Since the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the traditional Thoroughbred racing calendar, the upcoming schedule for the July 4 holiday weekend offers both a prep race for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (the Los Alamitos Derby) and a major Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” qualifier in the form of the $500,000, Grade 1 Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap.

The Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap, traditionally known as the Met Mile, is the highlight of a stacked Saturday card at Belmont Park that also features four other graded stakes. The winner of the Met Mile earns an expenses-paid berth in the $2 million Big Ass Fans Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile held on Nov. 7 at Keeneland.

Last Saturday, June 27, two horses punched their respective tickets to the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic and Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff by winning key preps at Churchill Downs. Tom’s d’Etat romped in the Stephen Foster Stakes to earn a berth in the Classic, and Midnight Bisou turned in a similarly dominant performance in the Fleur de Lis Stakes to qualify for the Distaff.

The 14 Breeders’ Cup races attract the best Thoroughbreds in the world to compete for $35 million in purse money and awards, and the selection of starters in each race is determined in part by a points system for graded stakes and the selection criteria of a panel of experts. However, there is one way for an owner to bypass the secondary criteria and secure a spot for their horse in a Breeders’ Cup race, and that is by winning a stakes race in the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series.

Saturday’s 127th Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap will be televised live during a broadcast on NBC, running from 5 - 6 p.m. ET.

Here’s some background on the Met Mile’s impact on the Breeders’ Cup along with some other races on tap this weekend:

Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap

The Met Mile has a rich history and retains its status as one of the most prestigious stakes within the Thoroughbred breeding community as a “sire-making” race. Its list of winners contains many Hall of Fame horses, and Met Mile victors have made an impact in several Breeders’ Cup races over the past 33 years – not just in the Las Vegas Dirt Mile, which was first held in 2007. Perhaps the most memorable Met Mile-Breeders’ Cup double occurred during 2004-’05, when Ghostzapper steamrolled the opposition in the ’04 Breeders' Cup Classic at Lone Star Park and then returned for one final race in the ’05 Met Mile and romped by 6 ½ lengths.

In 2007, Met Mile winner Corinthian took the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Monmouth Park, and the two races have had major crossover effects in recent years. In 2014, defending Dirt Mile winner Goldencents finished a game second to Palace Malice in the Met Mile; he would repeat in the Dirt Mile later that year at Santa Anita Park. Tamarkuz ran in both the 2015 Met Mile (fourth) and the 2016 Met Mile (ninth behind Frosted’s stakes record-setting time), and the Shadwell Stable horse would post an 11.90-1 upset in the 2016 Dirt Mile to close out his career. Perhaps the most exciting edition of the Met Mile this century involved 2011 Dirt Mile winner Caleb’s Posse and runner-up Shackleford, who met for a rematch in the 2012 Met Mile. After setting swift fractions up front under John Velazquez, Shackleford was all out to hold off Caleb’s Posse’s patented late charge by a nose, turning the tables in thrilling fashion.

In 2017, Sharp Azteca would finish second in the Met Mile and the Dirt Mile at Del Mar to Mor Spirit and Battle of Midway, respectively (Mor Spirit finished a disappointing eighth in the Dirt Mile). And last year, lightning-fast Mitole tested his ability at the one-turn mile distance at Belmont Park and won a thrilling Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap over McKinzie and globe-trotting Thunder Snow.

While Mitole received a “Win and You’re In” berth to the Big Ass Fans Dirt Mile, Steve Asmussen instead pointed him to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita, which he won by 1 ¼ lengths en route to year-end champion sprinter honors. McKinzie, meanwhile, would train on to finish second behind Vino Rosso in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic. He is slated to start in Saturday’s Met Mile.

Other Weekend Races:

The 1 ¼-mile Suburban Stakes at Belmont Park has a rich history dating back to 1884, and in the Breeders’ Cup era several of its winners have excelled on the World Championships stage, including Hall of Famers Easy Goer (second to Sunday Silence in a 1989 Breeders’ Cup Classic worthy of its name, first in the ’90 Suburban), Skip Away (first in the ’97 Suburban and Breeders’ Cup Classic), and Invasor (first in the ’06 Suburban and Breeders’ Cup Classic).

More recently, Mucho Macho Man won the 2012 Suburban, finished second behind Fort Larned in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. Then, a year later won the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic in a heart-pounder over Will Take Charge. Effinex, winner of the 2015 and 2016 editions of the Suburban, was runner-up in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic to American Pharoah and seventh behind Arrogate in the 2016 Classic.

Keen Ice, whose claim to fame will always be upsetting American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers Stakes, won the 2017 Suburban in another upset, this time over Shaman Ghost. The son of Curlin, who had finished fourth in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic and third in the 2016 Classic, was forced to miss the 2017 Classic due to injury and was retired shortly before the World Championships.

The 1 ¼-mile Manhattan Stakes, held on Saturday’s card along with the Met Mile and Suburban, is usually held earlier in June but was rescheduled this year due to the pandemic. The Grade 1 turf race often draws some of the top grass horses in training and has been won in past years by many stars that excelled at the Breeders’ Cup, including Sky Classic (won the 1992 Manhattan, second in the ’92 Turf); Paradise Creek (second in the 1992 Mile, won the 1994 Manhattan, and then third in that year’s Turf); Chief Bearhart (won the 1997 Turf and the ’98 Manhattan); Better Talk Now (won the 2004 Turf, second in the ’06 Turf, won the ’07 Manhattan); and Gio Ponti (won the 2009 Manhattan and second in the ’09 Classic and ’10 Mile).

In 2016, Flintshire, who had run second in the 2014 Turf behind Main Sequence, won the Manhattan and then finished second again in the 2016 Turf, this time to Highland Reel. He was voted champion turf male of 2016 at the Eclipse Awards.

Last year, the sensational Bricks and Mortar won the Manhattan Stakes by 1 ½ lengths over stablemate Robert Bruce for his fourth victory in as many attempts. He would then win the Arlington Million Stakes in August and then take a thrilling Longines Turf over United to close out a perfect 6-for-6 campaign in 2019. Bricks and Mortar, who was retired after the Breeders’ Cup, was honored as champion turf male and also as 2019’s Horse of the Year by Eclipse Award voters.

The Grade 2 Great Lady M Stakes held at Los Alamitos has a recent connection to the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, as Finest City won both races in 2016. However, the Great Lady M was held in April of that year rather than in midsummer. Finest City ran again in the Great Lady M Stakes the summer after her win in the World Championships and finished third. Marley’s Freedom won the Great Lady M in 2018, finished a close fourth in the Filly and Mare Sprint, and won the Great Lady M again last year in what turned out to be her final race.

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