McKinzie Set To Make History In Already Historical Met Mile
Baffert Runner Seeks Rare Grade 1 Win in fourth consecutive year
There’s an old saying in racing about horses known as milers eventually becoming top stallions. It’s hard to attribute the sentiment to anyone in particular, but theories seem to bounce from John Nerud to John Gaines and even Bobby Frankel, yet it doesn’t take an expert like they were to know that the Metropolitan Handicap (GI) now sponsored by Runhappy, certainly lives up to the expectation year after year.
This year the one-mile test is being held just a little later than in recent years, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, but that didn’t stop the connections of a group of standout horses from dropping their names into the Belmont Park entry box.
The “Met Mile” as it’s known has been contested as a grade 1 every year since the North American grading system was implemented in 1973 and was the first leg of what was known as the New York Handicap Triple and used to be followed on the calendar by the Brooklyn Handicap and Suburban Handicap. Only four horses in history completed the three-race sweep — Whisk Broom II (1913), Tom Fool (1953), the mighty Kelso (1961) and Fit to Fight (1984).
First run in 1891, the Met Mile boats an impressive list of winners who made their impacts on the track well before they solidified their post-race careers in the breeding shed. The list of some of the standout names to have captured one of New York racing’s main features consists of champions, classic winners, Horses of the Year and eventual Hall of Famers including the ill-fated Sysonby, two-time winner Equipoise, the filly Galorette, three-time winner Devil Diver, Stymie, Gallant Man, Carry Back, Gun Bow, the great two-time winner Forego, Criminal Type, Wild Rush, Aldebaran, Palace Malice, Honor Code, Frosted, Mor Spirit and Mitole a year ago.
But when it comes to winners and their eventual accomplishments in the Thoroughbred stud book, it’s as if the Met Mile stamps the coveted E Ticket to bloodstock immortality, especially over the past 60 years or so. Tom Fool, an eventual Hall of Famer, won the race in 1953 and in his post-running days he was always a solid stallion and was represented by Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Tim Tam, as well as fellow Hall of Famer Buckpasser.
The winner of the Met Mile in 1954 was dual classic winner and Hall of Famer Native Dancer, who won the Preakness and Belmont after his runner-up finish in the Derby. His sire record is nothing short of outstanding, boasting Kauai King, Dancer’s Image and Raise a Native as his most notable offspring. He is also the grandsire of the late leading sire Mr. Prospector.
Exceptional broodmare sire Gallant Man won the Met Mile in 1958 while 1959’s winner Sword Dancer would eventually be represented by dual classic winner Damascus, who himself would be honored by top runners and sires Private Account, Desert Wine, Ogygian and Time for a Change.
Olden Times won this race in 1964 and was a top sire most of his life. At one time the Rex Ellsworth-owned runner stood for $30k, which was considered among the highest stud fees in the late 1960s.
But back to Buckpasser — he won the Met Mile in 1967 before going on to a very impressive stallion career as we all know by now. The five-time Eclipse Award winner saw many of his progeny go on to tremendous careers as both racehorses and eventually the breeding shed, including La Prevoyante, L’Enjoleur, Silver Buck and more. He’s probably even better known as a broodmare sire having been represented by Broodmare of the Years Toll Booth and Relaxing, the latter being the dam of classic winner Easy Goer. He also is defined by his daughters becoming the dams of Woodman, Touch Gold, With Approval, El Gran Señor, Miswaki and Slew o’Gold.
In Reality took home the Met Mile trophy in 1968 and eventually sired notable names Desert Vixen, Smile and Known Fact, and he is also broodmare sire to Broodmare of the Year Toussaud and Meadow Star. Cox’s Ridge (1978) was represented by Life’s Magic, Little Missouri (sire of classic winner Prairie Bayou), Vanlandingham, Cardmania and Sultry Song as a sire.
One of the better stallions in the last 35 years was 1981 Met Mile winner Fappiano. Among his most notable sons are Derby winner and Horse of the Year Unbridled, Quiet American, Rubiano, Cahill Road, Defensive Play and Tasso. Unbridled is by far his most successful son and was a top sire himself and sired at least one winner in all three Triple Crown races (Grindstone, 1996 Derby; Red Bullet, 2000 Preakness; and Empire Maker, 2003 Belmont.) Unbridled also sired prolific sire Unbridled’s Song, whose tremendous contribution to racing and breeding is still being measured.
In 1987 and 1988, Gulch emerged victorious in the Met Mile and before he was pensioned from stallion duty at Lane’s End in 2009 was represented by more than 76 stakes winners, including 1994 Derby winner Thunder Gulch, as well as Court Vision, Wallenda, The Cliff’s Edge, Torrential and Japanese standout Eagle Cafe.
One of the most successful sires in California history is In Excess, who began his career in his home country of Ireland before being imported to California in the early 1990s. He was at one time the all-time leading sire in progeny earnings in the Golden State one of his sons, Indian Charlie, finish third in the Kentucky Derby before he himself went on to become a standout sire, having represented by multiple grade 1 winners like Uncle Mo, who is now one of the hottest sires in Thoroughbred racing. Other top runners by In Excess include Notional, Romance is Diane, Musical Romance and Excessivepleasure.
Holy Bull was the favorite heading into the 1994 Kentucky Derby and though he finished 12th of 14 that day, he’d more than make up for it the rest of the year en route to a Horse of the Year title. His strong second half of the year campaign began with his victory in the Met Mile. The gray son of Great Above, who passed away in 2017, had an above-average career at stud, siring many good horses like 2005 Derby winner Giacomo and grade 1 winners Macho Uno and Confessional.
Langfuhr, 1997’s winner, sired Wando, Lawyer Ron and Imperialism, while 2004 Horse of the Year and 2005 Met Mile hero Ghostzapper has been represented by a multitude of graded winners, including Shaman Ghost, Za Approval, Moreno and Judy the Beauty. Divine Park won in 2008 and his most notable progeny to date is Breeders’ Cup winner and fan favorite Lady Eli, who overcame laminitis to return to the grade 1 winner’s circle..
Quality Road, the 2010 Met Mile hero, was 2015’s top third-crop sire and has had a handful of good stakes winners so far in his stallion career, including City of Light, Abel Tasman, Bellafina, Roadster, Dunbar Road and several others.
While it can be argued that most grade 1 races over the past century have had a hand in producing successful stallions, clearly the Met Mile ranks up there in overall success, especially with classic winners.
This year, eight will head postward in the 127th running, which carries a purse of $500,000, and the connections of each one will look to solidify status as a good mile and, eventually, a standout sire.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert sends out Pegram, Watson and Weitman’s McKinzie in an effort to avenge his somewhat troubled three-quarter-length defeat to Mitole a year ago. The 5-year-old son of Street Sense, who will enter stud duty at Gainesway Farm next year, was a dismal 11th in the $20 million Saudi Cup in late February, but came back to win the Triple Bend Stakes (G2) back on June 7 and should he win here, he would become the first North American-based male to win a grade 1 at age two, three, four and five. He won the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity as a 2-year-old, the Pennsylvania Derby and Malibu Stakes at three and the Whitney Invitational a year ago.
“I think any time you win a Grade 1 on the east coast it’s pretty important, especially at Belmont and Saratoga,” Baffert said. “It’s like hitting a home run in Yankee Stadium, it means something.
“His comeback race was just perfect. If he brings his A game that’s what we’re looking for. He’s doing really well. He breezed well, we’re happy with it.”
McKinzie is named after the late racetrack executive Bad McKinzie, who was a close friend to the ownership group and a classmate of Baffert’s at the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program.
“It’s exciting having such a good horse named after our dear friend Brad McKinzie and (Brad’s) mother is still alive and so it keeps her going,” Baffert said. “She loves watching him run and it brings a tear to her eye when he runs. There’s a little added pressure when he runs. When you have a nice horse like this it’s so enjoying. Like his namesake, the horse has a great personality and when he performs, we’re always thinking of Brad.”
Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who has two previous Met Mile wins aboard Mor Spirit (2017) and Holy Bull (1994), will be back aboard McKinzie and the two will break from post position three.
W.S. Farish’s homebred Code of Honor, who won last year’s Travers Stakes (GI), made his 2020 debut a winning one and captured the Westchester Stakes (GIII) on June 6 by a half-length. The chestnut son of Noble Mission is trained by Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, who said he’d matured a lot over the winter and forced break due to the Covid-19 pandemic. He will be ridden by his regular jockey, fellow Hall of Famer John Velazquez.
“He just grew up physically in his body and his mind,” said McGaughey. “He’s gotten more aggressive and he’s caught onto what it’s all about now. He was still figuring things out last year, especially earlier in the year. Everything he’s done this year has been good.
“He acts like he’s ready to run. He’s had plenty of time off over the winter and it seems to have done him some good, so we’ll just see what he does.”
McGaughey and Farish won the 2015 Met Mile with Honor Code.
R.A. Hill Stable and Gatsas Stable’s Vekoma is riding a two-race win skein into the Met Mile, including a runaway victory by 7 ½ lengths in the Carter Handicap (G1) at seven furlongs a month ago. The George Weaver-trained son of Candy Ride is undefeated in two starts at Belmont Park and has been training great for months. Jockey Javier Castellano, who was aboard Ghostzapper (2004) and Honor Code (2015) for their Met Mile victories, rides last year’s Blue Grass Stakes (GII) winner from post position two.
Network Affect, who will lead the field to the gate under jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., hails from the powerful Chad Brown stable and is coming off a well-beaten second-place finish to Vekoma in the Carter last out. He’s loaded with potential, but hasn’t shown a ton of it when in against this level of competition yet.
Razorback Handicap (GIII) winner Warrior’s charge ran his career-best effort when he was second behind By My Standards in the Oaklawn Handicap (GII) last out two months ago. If he repeats that performance under jockey Florent Geroux, he makes sense to pick him for a larger piece of the pie.
Mr. Freeze is a multiple graded stakes winner who was most recently third behind Warrior’s Charge two months ago in the Oaklawn Handicap at Oaklawn Park. He is consistent and talented and regularly picks up checks behind the top runners in the division. Manny Franco rides for Dale Romans.
Godolphin’s Endorsed makes his third start for Hall of Famer Bill Mott after his previous trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, gave up his stable to become an agent for Luis Saez. The son of Medaglia d’Oro has two wins and a second in the Westchester Stakes last out in four starts this year, but hasn’t really ever been successful when taking a step up in class. Joel Rosario will ride.
Hog Creek Hustle won last year’s Woody Stephens Stakes (GI) and then was second in the Allen Jerkens Stakes (GI) but hasn’t done a lot since. This is also a big jump up in class and he’d need a lot of improvement to be a factor under Jose Ortiz.