Mor Spirit Steps Up in Wide Open Metropolitan Handicap

By Lenny Shulman, courtesy Blood-Horse

Michael Lund Peterson's Mor Spirit, who found his niche after traveling through the Triple Crown prep season a year ago, has been installed as the 5-2 favorite in the 124th running of the Mohegan Sun Metropolitan Handicap (G1) June 10 at Belmont Park. The $1.2 million Metropolitan Handicap, also known as the Met Mile, will go as the ninth race on the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1) card. The race is a Breeders' Cup Challenge "Win and You're In" race for the Las Vegas Dirt Mile (G1). Unplaced in last year's Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) after winning the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3), trainer Bob Baffert shortened up the son of Eskendereya to running in 1 1/16-mile races this season to good effect. He cruised to a daylight victory in the May 7 Steve Sexton Mile Stakes (G3) at Lone Star Park following a facile win in the March 18 Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park. "You don't know how they're going to react going one turn. I ran him in the Malibu, but seven-eighths was a little too short for him," Baffert said. "He has to ship well and run well. It's a different group he's got to run against. There's a difference between speed going two turns and speed going one turn. Last year I brought Cupid there and he was just completely lost going one turn. Some horses are that way." The winner of the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) at 2, Mor Spirit, a newly minted 4-year-old millionaire, looks to assert himself at the head of the older middle-distance runners and burnish his qualifications as a stallion candidate. "He's got to run his last race back," Baffert said. "He went off form a little bit. The Derby was a bad race for him. We freshened him up and now he's doing really well. This has been the plan. It's an important race. It's a stallion-maker." Ivan Rodriguez's Sharp Azteca returns stateside after a sharp third in the March 25 Godolphin Mile Sponsored by Meydan Sobha (G2). He won the Hardacre Mile Gulfstream Park Handicap (G2) two back over Awesome Slew and Tommy Macho, both of whom he will face again in the Met Mile. He also took last year's Pat Day Mile Stakes (G3) and just missed in December's Malibu Stakes (G1) behind top sprinter Mind Your Biscuits. "Sharp Azteca came out of the race in Dubai in great condition," trainer Jorge Navarro said. "We gave him some time and he recouped really fast. He's had four workouts at Monmouth Park and he's worked super. He's doing great for the race. "A lot of people when they go to Dubai, they always say that they're not the same. The horse is doing the same as always. I haven't seen anything different from him. He's training really good. We'll see how good on Saturday." Awesome Slew is one of several runners here coming out of the May 6 Churchill Downs Stakes Presented by (G2). He missed by a head in that heat to finish second after defeating A. P. Indian in the Commonwealth Stakes (G3) at Keeneland in April, both at seven furlongs. Awesome Slew ran second to Sharp Azteca in the Hardacre Mile and last year took the Smarty Jones Stakes (G3) at 1 1/16 miles. Tom's Ready checked in third in the Churchill Downs Stakes just three-quarters of a length off the winner. The 4-year-old is proven at Belmont Park, with a win in the Woody Stephens Stakes (G2) last year at seven furlongs. He stretched to a mile to win the Ack Ack Stakes (G3) last October, and was good enough at nine furlongs to finish second in the Louisiana Derby (G2) behind Gun Runner. Solid Wager was fourth in the Churchill Downs, just behind Tom’s Ready. Now a 7-year-old, Solid Wager in won the 2015-16 Cary Grant Stakes at seven furlongs and also took the 6 1/2-furlong Midnight Lute Stakes (G3) on the last day of 2016. He's also scored at 8 1/2 furlongs. Mohayman, highly touted the past two years after winning the 2015 Remsen and Nashua stakes (both G2), and the Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes and Fountain of Youth Stakes (both G2) last season, came tumbling back to earth after a fourth in the Florida Derby (G1). He hasn't won in four efforts since, and ran a distant fourth in the Westchester Stakes (G3) in his only 2017 start. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin hopes to find a repeat performance like the one turned in by Frosted in the Met Mile. "We hope that he was just rusty and needed his last race, but he looks fabulous and he's so happy and doing great," McLaughlin said. "If he runs his 'A' race he belongs with these horses. Obviously, his last race or two weren't great so we're hoping he gets back on an 'A' race cycle. I'd love to have another Frosted race. You never know." Tommy Macho owns three grade 3 victories, most recently early this season in the Hal's Hope Stakes (G3) at a mile. Last year he took another mile graded event when he won the Fred W. Hooper Stakes (G3). He also took the Discovery Handicap (G3) at nine furlongs. Economic Model finished third in his seasonal debut April 23 at Aqueduct Racetrack. Second behind champion sprinter Drefong in the seven-furlong Ketel One King's Bishop Stakes (G1), he also placed second in the Dwyer Stakes (G3) at a mile. Economic Model won the Easy Goer Stakes last season. Denman's Call faltered to seventh in the Churchill Downs Stakes but took the Triple Bend Stakes (G1) two races back at seven furlongs. The California shipper has not won beyond seven furlongs. Inside Straight took the Oaklawn Handicap (G2) April 15, while Virtual Machine was second in the Westchester following a pair of victories at Aqueduct earlier this year. Strong April 30 Belmont allowance winner Rally Cry completes the field.

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