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

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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.

Saturday’s 127th Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap will be televised live during a broadcast on NBC, running from 5 to 6 p.m. ET. Coverage is also available to stream live on NBCSports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

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 DownsTom’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.

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.

The Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series on NBC Sports rolls on with the Met Mile on July 4 from 5 to 6 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.