The $750,000 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park traditionally has been one of the most prestigious races in the country, and all you have to do is go down this year's list of entries to understand why. Not only is the race run over a testing flat mile, it often attracts the best sprinters, milers, and middle distance horses looking to raise their value as stallion prospects.
The 2013 edition of the Met Mile, to be run on Memorial Day, May 27, drew a field of nine. Seven of them are Grade 1 or Grade 2 winners. To demonstrate just how tough this field is, one of the two who has not won a Grade 1 or Grade 2 -- or any stakes for that matter -- could wind up going off as the favorite.
That horse is GoldMark Farm's Cross Traffic, who has run only three times in his career, getting beat a head in the April 27 Westchester Handicap in a sizzling 1:32.99 for the mile. The horse that beat him was Belmont Park specialist Flat Out, two-time winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup and undefeated in four starts at Big Sandy. The 7-year-old son of Flatter also returns in the Met Mile, co-highweight at 120 pounds.
MET MILE DRAW
Bettors likely will be swayed by the whopping 115 Beyer Speed Figure both horses earned in the Westchester, but there is a case to be made for several others, including Cross Traffic's stablemate Discreet Dancer, who was brilliant winning the Gulfstream Park Handicap, but came back and was third in the April 6 Carter Handicap as the even-money favorite. The one-two-finishers of the Carter, Calder shipper Swagger Jack and California invader Sahara Sky, both return in the Met Mile.
If the race isn't tough enough for you already, add the hard-knocking Mark Valeski, who ships up to New York by way of Churchill Downs and Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots. The one time the son of Proud Citizen ran at Belmont, he won last year's Peter Pan Stakes by 1 ¼ lengths. You have to go back nine races to his career debut to find the last time he finished worse than second.
Rounding out the field are Pennsylvania Derby and Commonwealth Stakes winner Handsome Mike; San Fernando winner Fed Biz from the stable of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert; and the Nick Zito-trained Fort Loudon. The latter is the other horse who has not won a Grade 1 or 2 stakes, but he has placed in a Grade 1 and won a pair of Grade 3s. He exits a fourth-place finish, beaten only two lengths, in the Carter.
With such a deep, talented field, strategy and whoever gets the best trip could determine the winner. Trainer Todd Pletcher can't be too thrilled drawing the rail with Cross Traffic and having his other horse, Discreet Dancer, breaking right next to him. But he does have two top-class riders in John Velazquez and Javier Castellano, respectively, and will have to hope the two horses, who have an abundance of speed, don't set each other afire coming out of the gate. Both will have to come out running from the two inside posts.
What those colts have in their favor is that they should be able to outrun the others, with the possible exception of Fort Loudon, who breaks from Post 4 under Jose Lezcano. Discreet Dancer's sire, Discreet Cat, was one of the most brilliant horses we've seen in years, with one of his best races coming in the Cigar Mile.
Fed Biz, breaking from the far outside under Mike Smith, also has speed. But he is dropping back from two-turn races, the last two on the grass, and should not be able to run with the two Pletcher horses early.
Mark Valeski, ridden by Rosie Napravnik from post 3, has good tactical speed, as he showed in his Mineshaft victory and New Orleans Handicap second-place finish, but it is two-turn speed and he should be in midpack, about four-to-five lengths off the lead, depending on how fast they go up front. Handsome Mike, trained by Doug O'Neill, also has tactical speed, but can be inconsistent. That leaves Flat Out, Swagger Jack, and Sahara Sky to bring up the rear, hoping for a hot pace up front.
Flat Out is not a true miler, having run most of his best races at 1 ¼ miles and 1 1/8 miles. Sahara Sky, trained by Jerry Hollendorfer and ridden by Joel Rosario from post 7, also is not a miler, coming into the race off eight consecutive sprints. Swagger Jack, however, is quite accomplished at a mile, finishing first or second in six of his seven mile races. Prior to his Carter victory at seven furlongs, he was second to Discreet Dancer in the one-mile Gulfstream Park Handicap. He breaks from post 5 under Irad Ortiz Jr.
To show how evenly matched this group is, only four pounds separate topweights Flat Out and Sahara Sky with Handsom Mike carrying the least, 116, from post 8 under Mario Gutierrez.
The Met Mile anchors an 11-race card as the 10th on the program with an approximate post time of 5:47 p.m. EDT. Other graded events to be run that day include the Sands Point Stakes, Ogden Phipps Handicap, and Acorn Stakes.