By Peter Applebee — The Metropolitan Handicap – the name alone sounds cool. “The Met Mile” as it is commonly called rolls out of your mouth like a car model from the 1950s. “Come by and take the new Met Mile out for a spin, you’ll love it…”
Or better yet, it could be a spot you would drive a 1950’s chromed-out car to drag race with other ne’re-do-wells. “Hey, are you guys heading out with Chet and Mickey to the Met Mile on Friday night? It’ll be a grand time.”
Notwithstanding the title of this piece, we haven’t lost the Met Mile. It’s just in hiding. Not witness protection program style hiding – but hiding in plain sight the way things do when they don’t have quite as much value as they once did. If you look carefully you can see it hiding in the middle of a Belmont Stakes Day super card.
The Met Mile is alive and well, sort of.
The Met Mile is arguably the most prestigious dirt race in New York for older horses. the Whitney Stakes, Woodward Stakes, and Jockey Club Gold Cup would be the others in the running. As such, the Met Mile is automatically one of the top dirt races in the country at any distance. It certainly is the most prestigious one mile dirt race in the country this side of the Breeders Cup Dirt Mile.
So how do we measure the prestige level of North American thoroughbred horse races? There is no single metric that measures “prestige”, but a combination of several factors can be used. These include inputs into the race: graded stakes status, purse amount, distance of the race, and the longevity of the race. The last measuring stick of a race is an output – who has won the race?
So how does the Met Mile stack up using these metrics?
If the three levels of graded stakes races in North America are bronze, silver, and gold then the Met Mile would be a part of a small subset of Grade I “gold” races that are also considered to have elite “platinum” status. That’s the level of prestige that it carries.
Not that you can tell in recent years.
The Met Mile has Grade 1 status – that of course alone makes it a top echelon race. Let’s look at the purse. It has a 2021 purse of $1 million – the largest purse in New York other than the Belmont Stakes and the Travers Stakes.
The flat mile is the standard for middle distance races. The distance tests the stamina of sprinters and asks the routers if they can go as fast as they need to in order to keep up with the sprinters. Also, it is one of the three classic distances. Sprints are six furlongs, male dirt routers are judged at how they run a mile and a quarter, and the flat mile is the middle distance that matters.
As for age, the Met Mile has plenty of patina. It has been run since 1891 and has been run at the mile distance since 1897. That’s a Grade 1 stakes race that is over a century old. This race is old in a good way, old in a great way, old in an olde way.
One of the great things about a long standing top race is looking at the winners of the race – here’s a short list of some of the Met Mile winners – Gallorette, Stymie, Tom Fool, Native Dancer, Sword Dancer, Kelso, Forego (twice), Fappiano, Conquistador Cielo, Gulch, Holy Bull, Ghostzapper, Quality Road, Frosted, Mitole, and Vekoma. How’s that for a list?
The Met Mile is certainly a very prestigious race. It has a large purse, it is the premier race on dirt at the distance in North America, it has been run for over one hundred years and many all-time greats have won the race.
Since the Met Mile is amongst the top dirt races held in North America for generations, this race is most certainly the feature race on a premier race day. Right?
Well, not quite. For many years the Metropolitan Handicap was run as the feature race on Memorial Day at Belmont Park. It was the first significant race on the New York racing schedule that wasn’t connected to the Triple Crown preps held at Aqueduct. This race would speak of summer and all the wonderful racing that was to come at Belmont and the Spa. However, since 2014 the Met Mile has lost is premier status on the racing calendar. It now finds itself lost on the undercard of the Belmont Stakes, sandwiched in between The Just a Game or The Woody Stevens and The Manhattan Stakes.
The Just a Game…really?
Hmmmm. While those are nice races, no race run as race nine in a thirteen race card is premier. Only odd balls like me can’t wait for the H. Allen Jerkens Memorial Stakes on Travers Day…maybe I just have an affinity for middle distance races.
In the Met Mile’s case, the headliner (the Belmont Stakes in this case) gets top billing for the day and receives a disproportionate amount of the attention. It’s like a rock concert (remember those). If there are three bands playing – no one much cares about the first band – even if they are great.
It’s even worse when there is a Triple Crown on the line. That just amplifies this effect and the Triple Crown storyline alone consumes all the oxygen for the day. As a result, the Met Mile gets lost on the undercard amongst the Jaipurs and the Acorns…sigh.
This is not to say I dislike the super cards like the one that has been put together in recent years for Belmont Stakes Day. THEY ARE FANASTIC! It’s wonderfully dizzying to have one Grade 1 after another. But the gravity of those super cards needs to be mitigated in order to ensure that other big race days can exist as well. There would be howls galore if the Whitney or the Alabama were run on the Travers undercard and before the Sword Dancer. Yet, that is where we find ourselves with the wonderful Met Mile.
In the COVID modified 2020 racing calendar there was a glimmer of hope. The Met Mile was restored to feature race status on July 4th as part of a very good card that contained several stakes races that typically are run on the Belmont Stakes card. The sun rose on the Met Mile again. But that was a one off and it has been announced that the 2021 Met Mile is again buried inside the Belmont Stakes super card.
It’s time to restore the Met Mile to its rightful place as a feature race on a big day at Belmont. Running it on July 4th would be wonderful, so would Memorial Day. A great American race on an important American Day.
In America, we talk of liberty and freedom.
How about a little freedom for the Metropolitan Handicap by liberating it from the Belmont Stakes Day super card?