Mr Freeze poised for fireworks in Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap

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The Fourth of July feature on a fantastic day of racing at Belmont Park is the Grade 1, $500,000 Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap, otherwise known as the Met Mile. Historically one of the biggest races in the Big Ass Fans Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile division, this year’s race lives up to that billing with eight horses running the one-turn mile trip.

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.

Among those leading the field in terms of earnings is Code of Honor, who has earned more than $2.4 million to date, some of that when winning the Grade 1 Travers Stakes last summer two races after a second-place finish (via disqualification of the winner) in the Kentucky Derby. Making his first start as a 4-year-old last month, Code of Honor won the Grade 3 Westchester Stakes and appears set for even better. The horse with the top earnings in the field is McKinzie, who has amassed a $3.4 million bankroll. McKinzie rallied from next-to-last in the 2019 Metropolitan Handicap and comes into the race off a “ridden out” win in the Grade 2 Triple Bend Stakes. Mr Freeze is another talented horse with $1.4 million in career earnings. Mr Freeze won the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Mile Stakes at this one-turn mile trip in February to prove he belongs at this level. Vekoma won the Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes in April 2019 and went into the Kentucky Derby well-regarded but finished 13th. A perfect 2-for-2 in 2020, Vekoma comes off a win in the Grade 1 Carter Handicap at Belmont last month. Westchester runner-up Endorsed and Carter runner-up Network Effect hope to turn the tables on Code of Honor and Vekoma, respectively. Hog Creek Hustle won the Grade 1 Woody Stephens Stakes last June on Belmont Stakes day but is winless in seven races since then. Warrior’s Charge rounds out the field of eight. He won the Grade 3 Razorback Handicap in February in the same manner he’s earned all of his other three wins, leading from start to finish. As such, we know who will be trying to lead these on a merry chase from the start.

Mr Freeze and Vekoma are my two top contenders to win this year’s Metropolitan Handicap, but of the pair I will give Mr Freeze preference. The reason is he’s a true dirt miler. Last September, Mr Freeze won the Ack Ack Stakes for a then career-best 115 Equibase Speed Figure and he hasn’t really run a bad race since then. Stretching out to two turns and a mile and an eighth for the Fayette Stakes in October and the Clark Stakes in November, Mr Freeze finished respectably to the top horse in the handicap division in North America, Tom’s d’Etat, winner of the Stephen Foster Stakes last weekend. After another big effort when second in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational in January, Mr Freeze cut back to a one-turn mile and won the Gulfstream Park Mile in impressive fashion, duplicating the 115 figure earned in the Ack Ack. Once again Mr Freeze stretched out to nine furlongs for the Oaklawn Handicap when last seen in May, finishing third of 13. Incidentally, the winner of that race (By My Standards) came back to run second to Tom’s d’Etat in the Foster. For this race, Mr Freeze is once again cutting back from a mile and one-eighth to a mile and if his last two efforts at a mile are any indication, he’s going to be very tough to beat. On another positive note, jockey Manny Franco rode Mr Freeze just once previously, when victorious in the Gulfstream Park Mile.

Vekoma, although running just twice in 2018, was a top 2-year-old as he won the Nashua Stakes in November in only the second start of his career. Similarly, he won the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes in his second start as a 3-year-old, before disappointing badly when 13th in the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve. Given nearly 11 months to mature after that, Vekoma made a very sharp debut as a 4-year-old in March with a stirring victory in the Sir Shackleton Stakes with a career-best 109 figure. Improving sensationally in his second start of the year, Vekoma put to shame a good field in the Carter Handicap last month at Belmont when drawing off to a 7 ¼ length win. The 116 figure earned in that race is the second-best last-race figure in the field, just one point shy of the 117 McKinzie earned last month at the same seven-furlong trip. However, what Vekoma has going for him which McKinzie does not is being a 4-year-old, Vekoma is still physically maturing and can improve. A perfect 4-for-4 in one-turn races in his career and with a perfect 2-for-2 record at Belmont, Vekoma is another strong contender to win this year’s Metropolitan Handicap.

Code of Honor, like Vekoma, was a top 3-year-old last year, winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes in March. After third-place finishes in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, placed second in the latter race after the disqualification of Maximum Security, Code of Honor proved himself once again when winning the Dwyer Stakes at this one-turn mile trip at Belmont last July. Stretching out to a mile and a quarter, Code of Honor won the Travers Stakes before a career-best effort and 114 figure when coming up a nose short in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, then was moved up to first after bumped by the original winner. The long campaign apparently took its toll as he finished seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. However, after seven months off, Code of Honor came back strongly to win the Westchester Stakes last month over the track with a 113 figure effort that bears improvement in his second start off that long layoff.

Endorsed led into the stretch in the Westchester but had no answer for Code of Honor in the late stages. The 112 figure was a career-best and he certainly could be a factor once more. McKinzie earned a 117 figure winning the Triple Bend Stakes last month in California and earned back-to-back 121 figures in two-turn races, winning the Whitney Stakes last summer at Saratoga then second in the Awesome Again Stakes. He finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to end his 2019 campaign. McKinzie, along with Hog Creek Hustle has mostly a deep closing style when he runs into a very hot pace as evidenced by his eighth- to second-place effort in last year’s Metropolitan Handicap. Hog Creek Hustle earned a career-best 106 figure when coming up a nose short in the H. Allen Jerkens Stakes last summer but has not come close to running that kind of race since. With only one “early” pace type in this race, Warrior’s Charge (with a career-best 104 figure), I think the late charges of both McKinzie and Hog Creek Hustle may be a bit muted. Network Effect earned a career-best 111 figure winning the restricted Big Drama Stakes in May but was no match for Vekoma in the Carter and is another who may be held to a minor award.

Win Contenders:

Mr Freeze

Vekoma

Code of Honor

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.