Quality Road remained perfect in three starts this year, as he held off a late charge by Musket Man to win the $500,000 Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) (VIDEO) by 1 1/2 lengths in a dazzling time of 1:33.11 May 31 at Belmont Park.
The 4-year-old Edward Evans homebred scored the third grade I win of his career and improved to 7-2-1 from 10 starts. Quality Road entered the Met Mile off a sensational performance in the Donn Handicap (gr. I) in February at Gulfstream Park when breaking his own nine-furlong track record that he set in the 2009 Florida Derby (gr. I). The son of Elusive Quality was not far off breaking another track record in the Met Mile despite racing off a nearly four-month layoff.
Ridden by John Velazquez, the bay colt broke sharply from post 7 but had to work for the lead, as Le Grand Cru shot to the front with Cornelio Velazquez aboard. Those two were side-by-side through a testing opening quarter of :22.55, with Tizway , Warrior's Reward , and Kensei following closely behind.
Quality Road finally wrested the lead from Le Grand Cru, but was pressed throughout a grueling half-mile in :45.19 and three-quarters in 1:08.57 while also having to keep at bay Warrior’s Reward, who made a bold move between horses while rounding the turn. Quality Road hit the top of the stretch with a two-length lead. But even though he put Le Grand Cru and Warrior’s Reward away, he had to have something left in the tank for Musket Man, who was charging gamely from the outside under Ramon Dominguez.
Quality Road, who carried top weight of 124 pounds, showed his class and talent in deep stretch while holding off Musket Man to the wire. Musket Man was 1 1/2 lengths in front of third-place Tizway in a field of eight.
The final time on the fast main track was less than a second off the track record of 1:32.24 set by Najran in 2003. His time tied for the second-fastest ever Met Mile behind Honour and Glory, who set the stakes record of 1:32.81 in 1996. In 1997, Langfuhr won in 1:33.11, while in 1982, before the advent of hundredths, Conquistador Cielo won in 1:33 flat.
“The first quarter was easy enough for him; I thought, ‘Let them come and get him.’ After that we picked it up, and I felt that we picked it up pretty quick, but he just kept going," Velazquez said. "I encouraged him going to the quarter pole, just to kind of get his mind on running. He was game today.”
Quality Road, who was bred in Virginia and is out of the Strawberry Road mare Kobla, is now a six-time graded stakes winner. He upped his career earnings to $1,632,830.
It was the first Met Mile win for trainer Todd Pletcher.
“It was very impressive, and watching him come back and seeing how he hardly took a deep breath, it’s unbelievable how talented he is, especially when you consider he was spotting the runner-up seven pounds and coming off a four-month layoff," said Pletcher.
“He’s such a versatile horse. He set a track record at Saratoga at 6 ½ furlongs and two track records at Gulfstream at 1 1/8 miles, and he showed today he’s a brilliant miler. He took the race to everyone and kept on. Just brilliant.
“We’ll see how he comes out of this. There might be a race between now and the Whitney (gr. I, Saratoga, Aug. 7), or not. We could take a look at the Suburban (gr. II, July 3, Belmont Park), but you want to make sure he’s still peaking in November, too, so you want to be careful how many times you take him over there. But my first impression was that this was not a taxing race."
Sent off as the 1-4 choice, he paid $2.50, $2.10, and $2.10. The exacta (7-3) returned $12.20 and the trifecta (7-3-2) was $71.
Convocation finished fourth, followed by Le Grand Cru, Warrior’s Reward, Kensei, and You and I Forever.
Musket Man trainer Derek Ryan was very pleased with his charge's effort.
“I thought I had a real chance," Ryan said. "I just need to figure out a way to make up two lengths. (Quality Road) is a real horse.”