Saturday, July 4, 2020
By Jeremy Plonk
Independence Day fireworks do not have to wait until sunset. Belmont Park's July 4 card includes 5 major stakes, headlined by the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap, long a staple on Memorial Day, more recently on Belmont Stakes Day and this year re-slated a bit later due to the COVID-19 shuffling. It's a must-see race that often spawns a superstar performance around Belmont's 1-turn mile trip.
Grade 1 winners McKINZIE, CODE OF HONOR, VEKOMA and HOG CREEK HUSTLE highlight just half the field. MR. FREEZE is Grade 2 winner and Grade 1-placed, while WARRIOR'S CHARGE is a Grade 3 winner and Grade 2-placed. NETWORK EFFECT is Grade 1-placed, while ENDORSED is Grade 3-placed with the most to prove. These are high-quality performers who have competed at elite levels with no discernible 'class' edge.
We don't have a champion sprinter like Mitole in this race as we witnessed in 2019. The speed is more route speed, likely to come from outside drawn WARRIOR'S CHARGE and MR. FREEZE next door. VEKOMA should be forwardly placed and could be inserted into the fray if Javier Castellano wants to secure the rail into the far turn, but his mount does his best running often outside and could sit third hoping to pounce. This does not appear to be an overwhelming pace and those near the front could be advantaged.
CODE OF HONOR and ENDORSED ran 1-2 in the Grade 3 Westchester June 6 at a prep for the Met Mile. Only a half-length separated them, though CODE OF HONOR was returning from a 7-month hiatus and didn't get a great set-up behind a moderate pace. ENDORSED was a bit quicker into the fray, held gamely and validated his 3 previous starts in 2020. It seemed if ENDORSED had CODE OF HONOR's number, it would have been then. The form cycle shift goes to CODE OF HONOR, though the weight shift is significant and now a 7-pound spread in favor of ENDORSED. Even so, CODE OF HONOR has been nearly flawless over the Belmont main track in 4 starts, John Velazquez has won the Met a record 5 times, and trainer Shug McGaughey tasted victory here as recent as 2015 with Honor Code.
McKINZIE finished second in this race a year ago when chasing home the eventual champion sprinter. This is a different kind of Met, but he's versatile enough to be a major force in most scenarios. He is age 5 now and has had an unconventional 2020 season with a trip to Saudi Arabia and return to California. The Triple Bend victory at Santa Anita last out was against inferior competition, but no fault of his own. But just how good is he now? Saturday will be the test. It's notable that 8 straight Met Mile winners, and 9 of the last 10, were 4-year-olds. He's got to show he can skate with the younger speedsters now.
VEKOMA and NETWORK EFFECT completed the Grade 1 Carter exacta over 7 furlongs on June 6, but VEKOMA left no doubt with a 7-1/4 length winning margin. Perhaps the sloppy track propelled some of the gap between rivals, but VEKOMA impressed nonetheless. He's 2-for-2 sprinting at Belmont, but the mile distance obviously is within his scope after capturing last year's Grade 2 Blue Grass over 9 furlongs and 2 turns at Keeneland. Though trainer George Weaver is just 1-for-26 in Belmont 1-turn miles, according to 1/ST BET statistics, VEKOMA seems highly capable of adding to his Carter score at a furlong farther.
WARRIOR'S CHARGE and MR. FREEZE exit the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap, where they finished 2-3 behind By My Standards, who returned last week to run a very good second in the Grade 2 Stephen Foster at Churchill. This was a quality effort from both, and their Met chances increase if VEKOMA is rated a bit off their pace. Not only are both of these runners capable of making the front, they've posted 101-103 BRIS late pace figures in their last 5 combined starts. If they are punching at a reasonable tempo, they will not give ground easily in the lane. You'll have to high-tail to run by them.
HOG CREEK HUSTLE will be at the back of the pack with CODE OF HONOR and will need a) pace help, b) clean sailing, and c) a stronger kick than the favored rival. That's a lot to ask, and it still doesn't put him ahead of some of the others. But his best race came here in the Grade 1 Woody Stephens last year at 18-1. So don't tell him that he can't do it. Jose Ortiz rides. This one might be better as a closing sprinter with a faster pace than at a mile.
Most Certain Exotics Contender: CODE OF HONOR will come with his run over his favorite track.
Best Longshot Exotics Contender: WARRIOR'S CHARGE and MR. FREEZE have a similar profile and identical path to success. Both appear very live in this spot for one or both to hold for shares. Perhaps the 4-year-old WARRIOR'S CHARGE has the edge on Met Mile history.
Sending it in ($100 bankroll): Let's take the main players with the speed price. $35 exacta part-wheel CODE OF HONOR, VEKOMA over WARRIOR'S CHARGE ($70); $15 exacta part-wheel WARRIOR'S CHARGE over CODE OF HONOR, VEKOMA ($30).