When Nick Zito confirmed that Morning Line would not run in the $500,000 Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I), it took out the expected favorite but did not leave the prestigious race wanting for talent.
A large and evenly-matched field of 11 was drawn for the May 30 Met Mile, which headlines Belmont Park’s Memorial Day lineup that also includes the Sands Point (gr. IIT). Post time for the Met Mile is slated for 5:49 p.m. EDT.
It is also the first Breeders’ Cup Challenge race held in the United States this year. The winner of the race will earn an automatic starting position into the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I) at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5.
Todd Pletcher won the Met Mile with Quality Road a year ago and the trainer is back with three more chances this year—Churchill Downs Stakes (gr. II) winner Aikenite, the third-place finisher from that race, Ibboyee, as well as Westchester (gr. III) winner Caixa Eletronica. Morning-line favoritism was reserved for Haynesfield (7-2), the beaten odds-on favorite in the Westchester.
Also lining up for a crack is Tackleberry, who finished fourth in the Charles Town Classic (gr. III) last month but had won three consecutive stakes prior to that; Tizway, a grade II winner at Belmont and third in the Met Mile a year ago; Soaring Empire, who has been in good form all season; and recent minor stakes winners Stormy's Majesty and Rodman.
Both Aikenite and Tackleberry will tote top weight of 120 pounds.
Dogwood Stable’s Aikenite and Mike Repole’s Caixa Eletronica both pulled off significant upsets in their last starts. Aikenite (9-2), sent off at 13-1, came from off the pace and ran down Apriority by a nose in the Churchill Downs Stakes on Kentucky Derby Day to notch his second straight seven-furlong graded stakes win. The 4-year-old son of Yes It's True won his only start on the Belmont main track last year when scoring an allowance race in June going one mile.
"It seems like the layoff he got after the Breeders’ Cup last year really did him well,” said Pletcher of Aikenite. “He’s been more enthusiastic than ever, and he seems to be in really good form. If you had to pick his absolute best distance it might be seven-eighths, but a one-turn mile is certainly within his scope.”
Caixa Eletronica (8-1) was claimed by Pletcher for Repole out of a March 9 optional claiming victory and he paid big dividends in his first start for his new connections. He romped by three lengths in the April 30 Westchester at Belmont, as 4-5 Haynesfield was fourth, beaten 4 1/2 lengths. Caixa Eletronica, who raced in South Florida for much of his 41-start career, has won 13 times.
“We picked out the Westchester as the first spot where we going to run him,” said Pletcher. “We weren’t shocked he won the Westchester, and the horse has trained well since then. He obviously relishes a one-turn mile, is in good form, and sits the right kind of trip.”
Anstu Stables’ Ibboyee came from the back of the field and was beaten only a half-length in the Churchill Downs Stakes at 21-1. The New York-bred son of Medallist is winless in three starts at Belmont.
Tackleberry’s fourth-place finish in the April 16 Charles Town Classic was one of only two blemishes in his last nine starts. The Montbrook gelding has won seven starts since last October, including five stakes. His victories earlier this year in South Florida include the Sunshine Millions Classic, Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship (gr. II), and Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II)—all at different distances. Regular rider Javier Santiago will try to have Tackleberry (6-1) forwardly-placed once again, even though he will break from post 10. Tackleberry will receive Lasix for the first time.
“Every time he has run, he has improved, even in the last race where I didn’t think he handled the track,” said owner-trainer Luis Olivares. “He was fourth, so he didn’t run that badly. It was a bullring track, and he had never run on one before. I think his ideal distance is seven-eighths to a mile, but when he ran a mile and an eighth, he didn’t get tired. He just kept rolling.
“He bled a little bit in his last start, so I decided to put him on it. He didn’t bleed much, but it was enough. I’ve breezed him a couple of times on Lasix, and he breezed real well.”
Also coming out of the Charles Town Classic is William Clifton Jr.’s Tizway (5-1), who was beaten 2 1/4 lengths when third. Tizway was also third in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, as he was beaten a neck in a three-way photo. The 6-year-old son of Tiznow scored his biggest career win at Belmont last fall when taking the one-mile Kelso Handicap (gr. II) by five lengths. In fact, three of his five wins have come at that distance. Tizway drew the outside post.
Turtle Bird Stable’s Haynesfield was making his season debut in the Westchester when coming up empty in the stretch. The 5-year-old son of Speightstown suffered a rare defeat at Belmont that day, as he had won five of his previous six starts at his home track, including last year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) and Suburban Handicap (gr. II). A winner of nine of 16 lifetime starts, New York-bred Haynesfield was second by a head in the Hill ‘N’ Dale Cigar Mile (gr. I) in his final start of 2010. Ramon Dominguez will keep the mount for trainer Steve Asmussen.
Soaring Empire (6-1) won the one-mile Hal’s Hope (gr. III) to begin his season, then ran second to Tackleberry in the Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship and Gulfstream Park Handicap, the latter defeat coming by a neck. He will break from the rail in the Met Mile.
“It could have gone better in the Gulfstream Park Sprint as he reared up, broke slowly, and closed ground,” said Cam Gambolati, who trains Soaring Empire for Ol Memorial Stable and Charles E. Glasscock. “I thought he should’ve won. In his next start, Tackleberry had things his own way, and Gulfstream Park is a track where it’s tough to close ground. There should be a lot more pace here, and I think Belmont will suit him better with the sweeping turns.”
$500,000 Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I, Race 10, 5:49 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 Mile (Dirt) PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer 1. Soaring Empire (KY), J Lezcano, 118, C M Gambolati
2. Stormy's Majesty (NY), E S Prado, 115, D G Galluscio
3. Rodman (KY), C Hill, 115, M E Hushion
4. Aikenite (FL), J R Velazquez, 120, T A Pletcher
5. Caixa Eletronica (KY), C H Velasquez, 117, T A Pletcher
6. Yawanna Twist (NY), M J Luzzi, 115, R E Dutrow Jr.
7. Ibboyee (NY), J Castellano, 115, T A Pletcher
8. Haynesfield (NY), R A Dominguez, 119, S M Asmussen
9. Kensei (KY), E Castro, 115, S M Asmussen
10. Tackleberry (FL), J Santiago, 120, L Olivares
11. Tizway (KY), R Maragh ,116, H J Bond