ELMONT, N.Y. - Trainers Todd Pletcher and Kiaran McLaughlin are taking the triple threat tact for the Grade 1, $1.25 million Mohegan Sun Metropolitan Handicap, with each sending out a trio of runners in the full field of 13 tough and talented horses contesting the 123rd running of the race at Belmont Park Saturday.
The Met Mile, one of North America's most storied races and a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" qualifier for the Dirt Mile, will be run as a one-turn mile event on the main track as part of the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival. The race is one of 13 on Saturday's card, which is highlighted by the 148th edition of the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets.
McLaughlin's contingent includes the multiple graded stakes winning Frosted and Marking, both of whom are Godolphin Racing LLC homebreds, and Tamarkuz, who carries the colors of Shadwell Stable and was fourth in last year's edition.
Frosted, the runner-up to Triple Crown champion American Pharoah in the 2015 Belmont Stakes and winner of the Grade 1 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Racetrack last year, is one of two Grade 1 winners in the field. John Oxley's Noble Bird, who took the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs one year ago and comes from the barn of seven-time Sovereign Award-winning trainer Mark Casse, is the other.
Frosted, who will break from post 5, will shoulder top weight of 120 pounds, including Joel Rosario, and has been installed as the 7-2 morning line favorite. Noble Bird, the 9-2 second choice, was assigned one pound less and will have regular rider Julien Leparoux aboard just to their inside in post 4.
"Frosted couldn't be doing any better. This race could be a little short for him, but we're excited about it and I think there will be a lot of pace," said McLaughlin, the winner of the 2008 Met Mile with Divine Park. "Tamarkuz, who is coming back from a long layoff, will come from off the pace. He worked really well for us here, so we're ready to go. Marking has not won a stakes race yet so this is a jump up for him, but the value of the race for their stallion resume is so important that if you get lucky to win the race with any of the three, it's great."
Noble Bird turned in a monster performance when winning the Grade 3 Pimlico Special by 11 1/4 lengths in gate-to-wire fashion on May 20. The victory was the first for the son of 2004 Belmont Stakes winner Birdstone since his Stephen Foster score, and the effort was so huge that his connections at first thought it might have taken some starch out of him. To the contrary, they see every indication he could be sitting on another giant effort.
"He's always been a little head strong and now he seems to be growing up a little. That race might have taken the edge off and set him up nicely for now," said Randi Melton, Casse's Belmont-based assistant. "The competition in this race is pretty salty, but we've always thought he was a very good horse. Now he's putting it all together."
Pletcher is going after his third Met Mile trophy with Alto Racing's Anchor Down, who made every pole a winning one while drawing off to a 6 3/4-length win in the Grade 3 Westchester here last out May 7, Grade 2 Gulfstream Handicap victor Blofeld; and Grade 2 Charles Town Classic winner Stanford; who races for Stonestreet Stable and the Coolmore connections.
"Stanford has done very well this year. He also did well at 3 but seems to have broken through to a different level this year. His Charles Town race was a great performance from him and was fun to watch, so we're excited about him," said Pletcher. "Anchor Down seemed to do really well in the Westchester by coming out running and I anticipate we'll do the same thing with him. Stanford and Blofeld are horses than can adapt to different running styles depending upon the pace of the race."
Pletcher's two previous wins in the race were in 2014 with Palace Malice and 2010 with Quality Road, the sire of Glencrest Farm's Blofeld.
The Met Mile traditionally attracts the top middle distance dirt horses and this year is no exception. The diverse contingent also includes Ami's Flatter, who is trained by the Canadian-based Josie Carroll, California shippers Calculator and Donworth, British-based Sloane Avenue, and the locally stabled Upstart.
Donworth, who finished third to Stanford last out at Charles Town, is owned by Reddam Racing, trained by Doug O'Neill, and will be ridden by Mario Gutierrez. Those are the same connections of 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist and I'll Have Another, who missed his shot for Triple Crown glory when he had to be scratched on the eve of the 2012 Belmont Stakes.
"Donworth is a very big horse, and he's the kind of horse we think will be suited for the one-turn mile," said O'Neill's assistant Jack Sisterton. "He's got tactical speed, so we'll let him break and get comfortable. Mario knows him very well, so we're going into the race very optimistic."
Trainer Rick Violette, who worked multiple graded stakes winner Upstart with blinkers for the first time two breezes back and adds them for the race, was also confident.
"He's super. The race is almost getting here too slowly because he's been so good for a while. We're ready to roll," said Violette. "This is going to be a pretty bulky field, but I think it's going to be a wide-open race. It's going to be a bit of a trip race.
"I hope adding the blinkers does the trick. When I put them on for that work, he breezed like a freak. He went a half [mile] in 46 [seconds], on the bridle and feet on the dashboard. He had gotten into the habit of just falling out of the gate and loping into the first turn and taking whatever seat was left at the table rather than taking position. Hopefully, the blinkers will help him leave there running to where he can take his position and the jockey can ride his race from there," he added.
The field, in post-position order, with riders and odds is: El Kabeir, Manny Franco, 30-1; Blofeld, John Velazquez, 10-1; Donworth, Mario Gutierrez, 20-1; Noble Bird, Julien Leparoux, 9-2; Frosted, Joel Rosario, 7-2; Upstart, Irad Ortiz, Jr., 20-1; Stanford, Javier Castellano, 5-1; Ami's Flatter, Martin Garcia, 6-1; Sloane Avenue, Florent Geroux, 15-1; Tamarkuz, Luis Saez, 20-1; Calculator, Junior Alvarado, 10-1; Anchor Down, Jose Ortiz, 12-1; Marking, Jose Lezcano, 8-1.
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