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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


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 patinaIt 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?

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⚠ Before you comment

Our staff likes nothing better than to engage with the HRI Faithful and provide a forum for interaction on horseracing and sports. In that spirit, please be kind and reasonable; keep the language clean, and the tone civil. Comments from those who cannot comply will be deleted. Thank you.

18 Responses

  1. Pete DiGiovanni says:
    February 22, 2021 at 4:57 pm Edit [reprint from FEB 22]

    “I understand NYRA wants gigantic days but tradition should still count for something. Please move Met Mile back to Memorial Day. Belmont Day does not need another Grade 1”

  2. Peter, thank you for your contribution, and for pointing out what a flat mile is–a race around one turn.

    You’d be surprised how many analysts misuse that term…

    1. Thanks John – all the best!

      As the great Levon Helm once sang

      “Good luck had just stung me, to the race track I did go
      She bet on one horse to win and I bet on another to show
      The odds were in my favor, I had ’em five to one
      When that nag to win came around the track, sure enough she had won”

  3. Sir Peter of Applebee–
    Couldn’t agree more! Hope you continue to be a regular contributor to the prestigious HRI site.
    Perhaps you have views on other topics–such as the continuing loss of benches to view the races from outside the clubhouse??
    Chuck from Saratoga

  4. Thanks so much for publishing this. It is a great honor. What is wonderful about HRI is that it gives voice to horse racing fans and to horseplayers (even if you’re a little guy) to try and improve the game for all. Without horseplayers – there is no game – this seems overlooked by the powers at be – but not at HRI!

  5. PA,
    Your light-hearted approach to registering the complaint shared by so many here is much appreciated. Poking fun has become scarce in these divisive times, so I look forward to seeing more of your work on these pages.

  6. Thanks for giving all of us voice on this issue John. The Met Mile on Memorial Day is right up their with Norman Rockwell and a slice of Apple Pie. “Prestigious” just does not sit well on an undercard. An insult to N.Y. Racing, and most all who really care for the history of the sport itself. America as well. A Prestigious Day should have first call on such a treasured race. Thanks for writing.

    Now pass down a slice of that Apple Pie to Mr. Applebee. Thinking Peter might be a distant cousin to the “Catman”. Peter’s verse at least has me thinking that way. Another Rockwell type is the Catman who needs to return to the hallowed grounds of the HRI comments section. Missing his Eastport input is all. Bring back the Met and The Catman as well.

  7. With a bit of seriousness, do hope that Mr. Panza gives these Vox Populi observations some thought. Maybe through in five listed stakes and make an ALL STAKES Empire 6 to give the publicists something to promote. If there’s anything better than a win, it’s a win-win. So, please, Mr. Secretary…

  8. Just seeing this now – the Met Mile issue in my opinion is the most pressing issue in NY racing. It was bad enough when the Woodward was taken away from Belmont. The Jockey Club Gold Cup now being STOLEN from Belmont is an absolute disgrace and will infuriate me for as long as NYRA decides to hold it hostage from downstate.

    But the Met Mile – THE most important race run at the most important circuit in north american racing being relegated to an opening act has been an ongoing slap in the face since 2014. The Memorial Day Met Mile card was about as good as it gets, and afforded the race the proper respect. Turning it into a warmup band is nothing short of disgusting. I’d liken it to a decision to take down the Statue of Liberty and place it in storage.

  9. Although I’m in complete agreement that the Met Mile should be the feature race on any card, I am shocked at your exclusion of In Reality from your list of notable winners. Prior to his 1968 triumph at age 4, the year before he had won the Salvator Mile at Monmouth Park against good older horses, to say nothing of his 2nd place finish to Damascus in the 1967 Preakness. Unfortunately, he is too often overlooked as a result of being born the same year as Dr. Fager and Damascus. In retirement he became a noted sire of successful brood mares, leaving his mark upon generations to come. At the mile distance, I believe he would have been competitive against any field, regardless of his competition. Although I was only a child at the time, I still remember listening to broadcasts of Clem McCarthy’s call of races including Stymie and Gallorette.

    1. Thank youfor the thoughtful and passionate comment. The list of great horses who won The Met Mile is seemingly endless. I initially was going to list all of the Hall of Fame horses who had won the race, but ended up including some more recent winners that are not in the Hall but are well known runners. So my list is a selection of notable winners, and not meant as an exhaustive list of great horses who won the race.

      Thanks for the plug for “In Reality” – it adds to the argument that we both support!

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