Freshened up since his sensational 12 3/4-length length triumph in the Donn Handicap (gr. I) nearly four months ago, Quality Road returns to action as the one to beat in the $500,000 Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) at Belmont Park May 31.
Quality Road was handed top weight of 124 pounds for his return to action in the Met Mile against a solid group of seven older rivals. Edward P. Evans' 4-year-old homebred will be making his first appearance at Belmont since finishing second to Summer Bird on a sloppy track in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) Oct. 3. He will spot his opponents between six and 10 pounds.
The field includes Warrior's Reward and Musket Man , the first two finishers in the Carter Handicap (gr. I) April 3, as well as Kensei, who annexed Belmont's Dwyer Stakes (gr. II) and the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) at Saratoga last year. But Quality Road, despite the layoff, will go off as a heavy favorite in the Metropolitan, which is race 10 on the program at 5:49 p.m. EDT.
"He's been training very, very well and has had some very good breezes," said trainer Todd Pletcher. "We're going into the race extremely confident."
Always forwardly placed, if not leading the way, there appears to be a few others in the field that will not allow Quality Road to dictate easy fractions. That hardly mattered in the 1 1/8-mile Donn at Gulfstream Park Feb. 6. Parked just off the lead following a brisk six furlongs in 1:09.87, the son of Elusive Quality swept to the front on the final turn, opened up by five lengths at the furlong mark and flew home in a driving finish. The final time was 1:47.49 over a fast track.
"We'll just plan on letting him run his race and find his rhythm. He's got good natural speed and can run on the lead if he finds himself there. But he can also run well from a number of different positions, so we'll just see how it plays out," Pletcher said.
Quality Road has won both of his starts at the one-mile distance, last year's Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) and the Hal's Hope Stakes (gr. III) in January, both at Gulfstream.
Pletcher has plotted a course this summer that will include the Whitney Handicap (gr. I) and the Woodward Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga, leading up to the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) at Churchill Downs. He said he considered the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) next weekend at Churchill, but opted for this spot instead.
"We just felt racing him a mile coming off a break made more sense than a mile-and-an-eighth," Pletcher said. "And the Met Mile is such a prestigious race from a breeders' perspective. Breeders hold it in such high regard that we feel it's an important race to win."
Pletcher said he is hoping for a fast track for Quality Road, a horse he compares to Left Bank and Lawyer Ron. "They were both champions and set track records," he said.
Quality Road, out of the Strawberry Road mare Kobla, has not been out of the money in his nine-race career, winning six times while earning $1,332,830. Last year's Florida Derby (gr. I) winner breaks from post 7 in the one-turn event and will be ridden once again by John Velazquez. Rider and jockey have been paired for the past seven races, including five successes.
Warrior's Reward, who nosed Musket Man in foggy conditions at Aqueduct, has started once since, finishing a fast-closing second by a half-length to Atta Boy Roy in the seven-furlong Churchill Downs Stakes (gr. II) on the Kentucky Derby undercard May 1. Trained by Ian Wilkes for owner A. Steven Miles Jr., the 4-year-old son of Medaglia d'Oro was assigned 118 for the Met Mile.
Warrior's Reward, who would benefit from a hot pace, leaves from post 4 with Calvin Borel aboard. The bay colt has won four of 13 lifetime while banking $472,382. In his only prior start at Belmont, he finished third in last year's Dwyer.
Musket Man, who will also be closing, ran third as the favorite in the Churchill Downs. He bids for his first graded victory since taking the 2009 Illinois Derby (gr. II) by two lengths for trainer Derek Ryan and owner Eric Fein.
The Kentucky-bred son of Yonaguska broke his maiden at Belmont as a juvenile. Musket Man is a lifetime earner of just over $1 million with a 6-1-4 mark in in 11 races. Ramon Dominguez rides from post 3.
Stonestreet Stables' Kensei, trained by Steve Asmussen, also came out of the Churchill Downs, finishing a tiring seventh after making a wide bid. The 4-year-old son of Mr. Greeley has not won in four starts since last summer's Jim Dandy.
You and I Forever, trained by Marty Wolfson, and the Allen Jerkens-conditioned Le Grand Cru both come into the Met Mile following upset wins in graded stakes.
You and I Forever scored a 1 1/2-length surprise at odds of 13-1 in the one-mile Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II) March 13.
Le Grand Cru, who figures to be a pace factor, captured Belmont's Westchester Handicap (gr. III) by 2 1/4 lengths at 27-1 to open the meet April 30.
The stalker Convocation ran second in the Westchester for trainer James Jerkens. Tizway showed some speed while drawing off for a 2 3/4-length victory in an optional claiming victory, his 2010 debut April 23 for trainer James Bond.
$500,000 Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I, Race 10, 5:49 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 Mile (Dirt)
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Convocation (KY), K J Desormeaux, 114, J A Jerkens
2. Tizway (KY), R Maragh, 115, H J Bond
3. Musket Man (KY), R A Dominguez, 117, D S Ryan
4. Warrior's Reward (KY), C H Borel, 118, I R Wilkes
5. Kensei (KY), E S Prado, 116, S M Asmussen
6. You and I Forever (KY), J Castellano, 116, M D Wolfson
7. Quality Road (VA), J R Velazquez, 124, T A Pletcher
8. Le Grand Cru (KY), C H Velasquez, 115, H A Jerkens