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ELMONT, NY – Michael Petersen’s Mor Spirit put an exclamation point on a magical afternoon for Hall of Famers Bob Baffert and Mike Smith, powering down the stretch to a dominant 6 1/4-length victory in the Grade 1, $1.2 million Mohegan Sun Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park.
The 124th running of the Met Mile for 3-year-olds and up was one of nine graded stakes, six of them Grade 1, during a 13-race program on the finale of the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival highlighted by the 149th renewal of the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets.
As a designated “Win and You’re In” event for the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, the Met Mile victory earned Mor Spirit an all-fees-paid trip to Del Mar on November 3 and completed a stakes sweep for Baffert. The California-based trainer was favored and won with all four horses he entered on Saturday’s card, including West Coast in the $150,000 Easy Goer, Abel Tasman in the Grade 1, $700,000 Acorn, and American Anthem in the Grade 2, $500,000 Woody Stephens.
The prolific afternoon came two years after the Baffert-trained American Pharoah became racing’s 12th Triple Crown champion with his victory in the Belmont Stakes.
“American Pharoah, I’ll never top that day, but this day is pretty huge,” Baffert said. “It’s pretty big for us, mainly for those horses. This is on a day people are thinking about championships and you want your horses to run well. They were the favorites, but the odds were against us; how can you win them all? It’s incredible, and you just don’t know until the gates open. Mike Smith was huge, and this is Mike Smith’s home.”
The Met Mile was the fifth stakes win on the program for the Hall of Fame jockey – four of them graded, three of those Grade 1s. In addition to the Easy Goer, Acorn and Woody Stephens, he captured the $750,000 Ogden Phipps with two-time champion filly Songbird.
It was the second career Met Mile for Smith, whose two Eclipse Awards in 1993 and 1994 came when he was based in New York. His previous triumph came in 1994 with Hall of Famer Holy Bull, who died Wednesday at the age of 26 in Lexington, Kentucky.
“I’m very blessed to ride for guys like Bob,” Smith said. “I’m not riding a lot right now, other than today, but we’re riding some super horses, and these kind of horses, you use your head a little bit and you point them in the right direction, and they get it done.
“Honestly, this a race besides every one I was blessed to win today,” he added. “I really wanted to win this race for sentimental reasons, for Holy Bull. This was one of his best races, and I wanted to win this one for him today. I said, ‘Run one more for the Bull,’ and he did it. (Mor Spirit) ran just like him.”
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As expected, Sharp Azteca broke running from post 5 and was in front through a 1/4-mile in :23.20 and a half in :46.09, with Smith and Mor Spirit tracking on his right hip, never more than a length away. Smith gave Mor Spirit his cue around the turn and they met no resistance to take the lead after 6 furlongs in 1:10.10, steadily pulling away through the stretch to win in 1:33.17 over a fast main track.
Sharp Azteca was never threatened for second, finishing 3 1/4 lengths ahead of Tommy Macho in third. Awesome Slew, Economic Model, Rally Cry, Tom’s Ready, Solid Wager, Virtual Machine, Denman’s Call, Mohaymen, and Inside Straight completed the order of finish.
In winning his third consecutive race, all stakes and two Grade 1s, the $650,000 winner’s share pushed Mor Spirit’s career bankroll to $1,658,400 from 13 starts.
“That was pretty impressive, I have to admit,” Baffert said. “All my horses were impressive today, but this horse, the way he ran today, how fast he ran – it was incredible. “Turning for home, I felt pretty good about it, because it was a :46 (for the 1/2 mile), and that was manageable, especially him with a horse in front. I could tell Mike was just sitting.”
Mor Spirit returned $7.10, $4.10, and $3.30. Sharp Azteca brought back $4.40 and $3.50, while Tommy Macho paid $7.20 to show.
Trainer Bob Baffert, Mor Spirit: “He couldn’t have looked any better in the paddock. If it was a show, he would’ve won best in show. He’s a beautiful horse. We took a different route to get here, and sometimes it doesn’t work out, but today, it did. It’s funny; people were trying to buy this horse earlier in the year, and I said no, he’s worth a lot more than that, and actually, when people are trying to buy your horse, that’s a good thing. That means your horse is training well and the word’s out.
“It’s a pretty incredible day for us. To be able to pull this off, I wish I had another horse in. They all shipped well, they all worked well, we put them on the plane, and they all drew well. They only one that didn’t draw well was Abel Tasman. I was worried about that draw that it might cost her, but I’m so proud of these horses. On a big day like this, for them to run like this, it’s pretty incredible.
“The most incredible barn area. I wish all the barn areas were like that, so when they got here, they were just like at the Spa. They were loving it in here. I want to thank NYRA management, Martin Panza and Chris Kay, they’ve been so good to us whenever we come here and take care of us. They make you feel so welcome when you come to New York.”
Jockey Mike Smith, Mor Spirit: “I was so happy we were coming here. I said this horse is really getting good right now. I thought the horse that was in front would be in front. I didn’t want to him to have too much of an easy lead and not hinder myself, and it worked out wonderful. It’s incredible. I’m happy to be back home.”
Trainer Jorge Navarro, Sharp Azteca: “You know, you can’t ask for more. He ran a huge race. I have a good horse.”
Jockey Paco Lopez, Sharp Azteca: “I had a perfect break and we were right there. She’s a little tired filly, but she tried very hard. They told me, ‘Paco, maybe she needed one more work.’ Next race, she’ll be ready.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher, Tommy Macho and Rally Cry: “I thought Tommy Macho ran well. He kept trying. He was outside, inside, ducked in … closed pretty well, but didn’t quite get there. Rally Cry got in good position but just kind of flattened out.”
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