Denman’s Call winning the Triple Bend Stakes (gr. I) at Santa Anita – © Benoit Photo
Although the 2017 edition of the $1.2 million Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) at Belmont Park hasn’t drawn as deep a field as a few other recent renewals, the prestigious one-mile race has nevertheless attracted an intriguing group of twelve horses that look pretty evenly-matched on paper.
The horses to beat are Mor Spirit and Sharp Azteca, thanks to their excellent form this year and eye-catching speed figures. Mor Spirit, who ships in from California for trainer Bob Baffert, has posted triple-digit BRIS speed figures in each of his last three starts, including a 107 for his front-running 5 ¾-length victory in the Steve Sexton Mile (gr. III) at Lone Star Park. Sharp Azteca also boasts an impressive streak of triple-digit speed figures, including a 113 awarded to his decisive 4 ½-length triumph in the Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II), conducted over a one-turn mile similar to the Metropolitan.
But while Mor Spirit and Sharp Azteca warrant serious respect, you can make a case that both could be vulnerable. Mor Spirit’s best races have all come in two-turn races, and his win in the Steve Sexton Mile was achieved with the aid of a modest pace. Mor Spirit was less impressive in his last one-turn race, that being the seven-furlong Malibu Stakes (gr. I), in which he was out-sprinted early and could only rally mildly to finish fourth by 4 ½ lengths.
Sharp Azteca figures to be tough to catch, but the Metropolitan will mark his first start since finishing third in the Godolphin Mile (UAE-II) in Dubai on March 25th. The long trip and subsequent layoff are both question marks, though it’s worth noting that Frosted won the 2016 Metropolitan Handicap off a similar trip and layoff. The bigger concern is that Sharp Azteca has shown a tendency to tire late in his races when forced to set too fast of a pace, and if one of his Metropolitan rivals pushes him early, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him shorten stride in the final furlong.
With all of this in mind, I’m going to take a chance with a longshot in the Metropolitan, and while there are plenty to choose from, Denman’s Call is the one that has caught my eye. After flashing promise early in his three-year-old season, Denman’s Call went to the sidelines until the beginning of 2017, where he showed hints of potential prior to a run in the seven-furlong Triple Bend Stakes (gr. I). Sent off as a longshot, Denman’s Call settled 2 ½ lengths off the pace as the talented Masochistic carved out solid but unremarkable fractions of :22.94 and :45.22. Under the circumstances, Masochistic should have been an easy winner (he was favored at 1-2), but instead, Denman’s Call threw down a third quarter-mile in about :23 1/5 to reach even terms through six furlongs in 1:08.79 before pulling clear to win by a length in 1:20.94. The final time was good for a solid BRIS speed figure of 105.
It’s a performance like that—tracking a fast pace and throwing down a sharp fraction for six furlongs—that is frequently effective in the Metropolitan, and while Denman’s Call’s most recent race was disappointing, I think it was much better than it appears at first glance. Racing over a sloppy track in the seven-furlong Churchill Downs Stakes (gr. II), Denman’s Call broke slowly from post ten and tried to rally wide into stiff fractions of :22.04 and :44.35. He was also bumped around during the homestretch, but despite these obstacles, Denman’s Call still managed to finish just 3 ¼ lengths behind the winner.
It’s also important to note that five of the six horses that defeated Denman’s Call rallied from significantly farther off the pace, showcasing just how big a toll the pace took on the leaders. That race also brought Denman’s Call’s record on wet tracks to 0-for-3. With all of this in mind, I’ll draw a line through Denman’s Call’s seventh-place finish in the Churchill Downs and judge him off his Triple Bend form, which would certainly put him in the mix on Saturday.
Other longshots that I would consider are Tommy Macho and Virtual Machine. The former has been quite effective in one-turn miles and most recently finished third in the seven-furlong Carter Handicap (gr. I) despite a troubled run down the homestretch while trying to close over a speed-favoring track. On his best day, he’s fast enough to be a contender (his career-best BRIS speed figure is a 107), though he can be a bit inconsistent.
As for Virtual Machine, he has yet to crack the triple-digit BRIS barrier, but he’s shown steady improvement since switching barns and returning from a long layoff earlier this year. After two easy wins at Aqueduct by 8 ½ and 9 ½ lengths, he stepped up in class for the Westchester Handicap (gr. III) over the same track and distance as the Metropolitan and ran a big race to finish second behind Connect, who would have been a big favorite in the Metropolitan if he hadn’t been sidelined with an injury. One more step forward could put Virtual Machine in the mix at a very big price.
For other Belmont Stakes Day handicapping insights, including wagering strategies, check out the TwinSpires.com handicapping blog. For general news related to the Belmont Stakes Day races, check out Brisnet.com.
Now it’s your turn! Who do you like in the Metropolitan Handicap?
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