Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert won't have an entrant in the 151st running of the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes after successfully winning the “Test of the Champion” and capturing racing's elusive Triple Crown two out of the past four years with American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify last year, but he will send a pair of formidable entrants to compete on Belmont Stakes Day undercard, with multiple graded stakes winner McKinzie pointing for the star-studded Grade 1, $1.2 million Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap and Much Better to the Grade 1, $400,000 Woody Stephens presented by Mohegan Sun.
“I really wish we had a runner ready for the Belmont, but it's going to be a great day of racing,” said Baffert. “We're going to send two east that we like to compete in some tough races. Martin Panza [NYRA's Senior VP of Racing Operations] always does a great job putting together great cards on big days and this looks to be another one.”
McKinzie is pointing for the Met Mile following an impressive 4 ¾ length victory in the Grade 2 Alysheba on May 3 at Churchill Downs. Baffert said McKinzie was in good order following his most recent workout on Monday at Santa Anita, where he completed six furlongs in 1:11.80 handily.
“He's doing great,” said Baffert. “I thought he really had a nice work the other day and we'll work him one more time this weekend before we send him to New York on Tuesday.”
A 4-year-old son of Street Sense owned by Karl Watson, Mike Pegram and Paul Weitman, McKinzie emerged as one of the top horses in the country last year collecting graded stakes wins in the Grade 2 San Felipe and Grade 1 Malibu at Santa Anita as well as a Grade 1 score in the Pennsylvania Derby at Parx.
McKinzie was second by a half-length in his 2019 debut in the Grade 2 San Pasqual on February 2 at Santa Anita, and he finished second by a nose in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap before his impressive score in the Alysheba.
“I thought he came out of his last race well and he's really moved forward,” said Baffert.
An onslaught of graded stakes winners are expected for the Runhappy Metropolitan, a Breeders' Cup Challenge Series “Win and You're In” event to the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita Park Nov. 2, including Coal Front, Firenze Fire, Mitole, Promises Fulfilled, Pavel and Thunder Snow.
Baffert said he is expecting a thrilling race.
“It's certainly one tough race,” said Baffert. “We think we have a good horse too and we want to compete, but those are the type of horses that make it a Grade 1.”
Much Better, a 3-year-old Pioneerof the Nile colt owned and bred by Three Chimneys Farm, will look to regroup off a fourth-place finish over a sloppy and sealed main track in the Gold Fever on May 12 at Belmont, where he was sent off as the 1-2 post time favorite.
Much Better breezed five furlongs in 58.80 seconds last Tuesday at Churchill Downs, and Baffert said he's hoping to draw a line through his Gold Fever effort.
“I just don't think he liked the off track that day,” said Baffert. “He worked great at Churchill so we'll look to ship him up Wednesday and give him another shot.”
Making his first three career starts on turf, including a 14th place finish in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Churchill Downs last year, Much Better switched to the dirt, picking up a third-place finish in the Sham and an allowance win at Santa Anita before running fourth in the Grade 3 Gotham at Aqueduct on March 9 and second in the Grade 3 Bay Shore on April 6 at the Big A.
Lastly, Baffert reported multiple graded stakes winner Marley's Freedom would not point for the Grade 3, $250,000 Bed o' Roses and will instead look at other options.
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