ELMONT, N.Y. - One year after his upset victory over California Chrome in the 146th Belmont Stakes, Tonalist returns to Belmont Park as the horse to beat in a star-studded renewal of the Grade 1, $1.25 million Metropolitan Handicap.
The 122nd running of the Met Mile is one of six Grade 1 races, nine graded stakes and 10 overall stakes on Saturday's 13-race Belmont Stakes Day program, capped by the $1.5 million 'Test of the Champion,' where American Pharoah seeks to become the 12th Triple Crown winner and first since 1978.
Carded as the ninth race, post time for the Met Mile is 4:49 p.m. EST as part of NBC's 2 Â½-hour national telecast from 4:30-7 p.m. The race is also a Breeders' Cup 'Win and You're In' qualifier for the Dirt Mile.
"It is going to be a very big day. For people who love racing, it's like a Breeders' Cup before the Breeders' Cup," Tonalist's trainer, Christophe Clement, said. "I wish I wasn't running anything so I could enjoy it more. I'm going to be anxious all day."
Undefeated in four lifetime starts at Belmont Park, Tonalist is the 5-2 program favorite in a field of 10 for the Met Mile that includes nine group or graded stakes winners, among them fellow Grade 1 winners Bayern, Private Zone and Wicked Strong.
"This Met Mile is a serious, serious race," said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, winner of the 2008 Met Mile with Divine Park, who will saddle both Bay of Plenty and Tamarkuz. "It seems to be one of the toughest ones we've had, especially when you're in it. It's a very, very good race."
Robert S. Evans' Tonalist shares topweight of 123 pounds with Bayern and Private Zone, each giving three to 10 pounds to their rivals. The bay son of Grade 1 winner Tapit opened his 4-year-old season with a 3 Â¾-length victory in the Grade 3 Westchester May 2 at Belmont. Despite breaking slowly and racing wide into the stretch, he posted a career-best 111 Beyer Speed Figure.
Tonalist also began last season with a victory, breaking his maiden at Gulfstream Park, before winning the Grade 2 Peter Pan, Grade 1 Belmont and Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup, all at Belmont. He finished the year running fifth behind Bayern in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Classic.
"He was a very nice horse last year, and I think he's still a very nice horse. Is he a stronger horse? He's probably a bit stronger from 3 to 4. I liked him last year. He's probably grown a little but mostly he's just filled out more," Clement said. "He's training again very well. He's a very exciting horse. We're excited for the race."
Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez will be aboard Tonalist for the first time in the Met Mile, breaking from post 4.
Bayern enters the Met Mile overshadowed by his stablemate, American Pharoah, also trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert. Kaleem Shah's Bayern owns five graded stakes victories and two Grade 1's topped by the Classic, where he broke inwardly at the start and went on to wire the field and win by a nose.
In his lone start this year, Bayern ran last of six in the seven-furlong Grade 2 Churchill Downs Stakes May 2. He romped to a 7 Â½-length score in the Grade 2 Woody Stephens, also at seven-eighths, on the 2014 Belmont Stakes undercard.
"I think he got a bum rap after the Breeders' Cup," Baffert said. "He didn't run well off the layoff. He never has run well at Churchill. I think he really needed it. He came back and worked really strong. We know he likes this track. It's a really tough race but he's doing really well so I expect a big effort from him. When he came off the plane yesterday he was breathing fire. When he's like that, he's really sharp. It's a tough race, but he's a tough horse. He can handle that."
Regular rider Martin Garcia will be aboard Bayern from post 7 as the 7-2 second choice on the morning line.
Third in the program at 4-1 is Private Zone, trained by Jorge Navarro for Good Friends Stable. The gelded 6-year-old son of Macho Uno lost his season debut by a half-length to Met Mile contender Honor Code in the one-mile, Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap March 7 but came back with a front-running 4 Â½-length triumph in the Churchill Downs Stakes.
Winner of the Grade 1 Cigar Mile November 29 at Aqueduct to end last season, Private Zone is 2-for-2 at Belmont Park with back-to-back victories in the Grade 1 Vosburgh, each by a neck. Jockey Martin Pedroza rides from post 1.
Wicked Strong will be looking for his first win of the year in the Met Mile. Owner Centennial Farms and trainer Jimmy Jerkens teamed up to capture the 2007 running with Corinthian.
Fourth by a length in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, Wicked Strong was an even third, beaten three lengths, in the Grade 3 Excelsior April 25 at Aqueduct. Jerkens gave the Hard Spun colt a short freshening that included three works at Belmont, two of them bullets, most recently going five furlongs in 58.98 seconds May 29.
"It seems like he's doing good. He's in very tough but it looks like he's good and strong. He worked good the other day and [jockey Joel Rosario] has confidence in him. That's all good," Jerkens said.
"I thought his comeback race in Florida was good but his last race was lackluster, no doubt about it. He had no excuse that I saw. It looked like he was the best horse in the race on paper. He only got beat three lengths but he just basically galloped around there. He didn't have much to offer it didn't look like. He's bounced back and gotten kind of fresh and looks good. He had a big work, so we hope he runs to it."
Wicked Strong will carry Rosario and 120 pounds from post 6 at 6-1 on the morning line.
Late-running Honor Code drew post 9 and will have regular rider Javier Castellano aboard in his third start of 2015. He rallied from last to win the Gulfstream Park Handicap in his season debut but was fifth in his subsequent effort, the Grade 2 Alysheba May 1 at Churchill Downs.
Lane's End Farm and Dell Ridge Farm's Honor Code lost the Grade 1 Champagne by a neck as a 2-year-old at Belmont, took the 2013 Grade 2 Remsen, and was an impressive allowance winner November 22 at Aqueduct in his first start since being sidelined with an injury last spring that knocked him off the Triple Crown trail.
"He's always trained well here and he seems to have an affinity for the New York tracks," Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey said. "He's run once at Saratoga and won. He ran twice at Aqueduct and won and once here and just got beat. We'll see what happens. It's a good race. There looks to be a lot of speed in there on paper, which will help us. The faster they go, the better it will be for us. It could set it up for us, because we'll be back there."
Listed at 6-1 on the morning line, Honor Code will carry 118 pounds, including Javier Castellano.
Making his North American debut, Shadwell Stable's Tamarkuz brings a four-race win streak from Dubai into the Met Mile, the last three of them in group stakes, most recently the Group 2 Godolphin Mile March 28 at Meydan Racecourse. Irad Ortiz, Jr. will ride from post 5 at 119 pounds.
"We're happy to have him. We're happy that he's in the barn," McLaughlin said. "We might not have found a tougher race to put him in, that's the problem. It's going to be a real challenge, but he's doing well and we're looking forward to leading him over there. He's a really neat horse. He does everything right; we just hope he's good enough."
Godolphin Stable's Bay of Plenty owns three lifetime wins at Belmont in as many starts but is trying graded company for just the second time and first since finishing second in the Grade 3 Discovery Handicap November 1 at Aqueduct. Hall of Famer Mike Smith will ride from post 2 at morning-line odds of 20-1.
"We did tieback surgery on him and he came off a bit of a layoff and won well last time," McLaughlin said. "It's a tough race for him also but he's doing so well, better than he's ever done in his life. He wants the distance and we're happy with him; it's just a tough spot."
Rounding out the Met Mile field are multiple graded stakes winners Kobe's Back and Pants On Fire and Grade 2 Jerome winner Noble Moon.