Trainer Bob Baffert is hoping McKinzie can go one better than last year’s second in the Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park on Saturday.
McKinzie encountered traffic trouble in the home straight and had to settle for second behind Mitole a year ago in the Long Island Grade 1.
Legendary trainer Baffert is attempting not to be downcast in knowing that the prize fund of $500,000 is less than half of what was on offer last time.
“Last year, it was worth $1.2million, so that’s the part that stung the worst,” Baffert said. “But we don’t worry about that, that’s old news. That’s over with.”
After that setback at Belmont, McKinzie went out next time and won the Grade 1 Whitey Stakes, cushioning the blow of that luckless Met Mile run.
Baffert opted to take in the $20million Saudi Cup back in the spring but his charge ran a rare poor race, finishing last of 11 as Maximum Security scored for trainer Jason Servis in the inaugural Riyadh event.
That off-color run was consigned to the history books with a smooth success next time in the Triple Bend Stakes and that has fuelled Baffert’s belief that McKinzie is once again primed for a tilt at the Met Mile.
Having won the Los Alamitos Futurity at two years old, the Pennsylvania Derby at three, and the Whitney last year; McKinzie will win at Grade 1 level for the fourth year in a row should be managed to defy top-weight at Belmont.
“His comeback race was just perfect,” Baffert said of the Triple Bend. “We just need to draw well and find some racing luck and good weather. If he brings his ‘A-game’ that’s what we’re looking for. He’s doing really well. He breezed well, we’re happy with it.”
Jockey Mike Smith, who was in the saddle when Baffert’s Holy Bull (1994) and Mor Spirit (2017) won the Met Mile, will be on board when McKinzie breaks from gate three on Saturday.
Vekoma, winner of the Grade 1 Carter at Belmont last time, joins Code Of Honor amongst a high-class field of opponents. Mr Freeze and Network Effect are also in the mix, while Hog Creek Hustle would see trainer Vickie Foley become the first woman to saddle the Met Mile winner.
Baffert has pretty much done it all in US racing circles but the 67-year-old trainer readily admits that McKinzie carries added emotion every time he goes on the track.
“It’s exciting having such a good horse named after our dear friend Brad McKinzie and his mother is still alive and so it keeps her going,” Baffert added. “She loves watching him run and it brings a tear to her eye when he runs.
“There’s a little added pressure when he runs. When you have a nice horse like this it’s so enjoying. Like his namesake, the horse has a great personality and when he performs, we’re always thinking of Brad.”