The Week in Review: Met Mile–and Vekoma–Both Benefit from Role Recasts



One of the most welcome schedule changes imposed upon the racing calendar by the COVID-19 pandemic was the repositioning of the GI Runhappy Metropolitan H. to headline status on the July 4 holiday at Belmont Park.

In 2014, the Met Mile got yanked off its decades-long anchor as the Memorial Day feature in New York, reassigned to a supporting role on GI Belmont S. Day. This move was part of the prevalent (but not always aesthetically pleasing) national practice of stacking graded stakes on big-race Saturdays. It never felt like a true fit, primarily because the five years of undercard status didn't match the race's century-plus foundation of historical significance.

On Saturday, Vekoma (Candy Ride {Arg}) did his best to ensure that what appeared on paper to be a talent-laden renewal of the 2020 Met Mile unfolded that way on the racetrack. He stormed straight to the front, refused to be headed under intensifying pressure, then deftly swatted away serious deep-stretch bids from some of the best middle-distance horses on the continent.

Off as the 1.95-1 second favorite, Vekoma prevailed by 1 1/4 lengths in 1:32.88 for the one-turn mile (104 Beyer Speed Figure).

A thrill-ride metaphor is apt here because Vekoma shares a name with a roller coaster manufacturer. You can even make the case that this George Weaver-trained 4-year-old has already had one dizzying ascent followed by a free-fall plummet, and is just now gathering momentum for the next set of twists and turns.

The early part of Vekoma's career was notable for its 2-for-2 start, including a win in the 2018 GIII Nashua S.

But as a May 22 foal who was on the slight side, Vekoma earned a reputation as a light-bodied, overachieving speedster who at times looked intimidated by physically bigger foes. He also tended to lose focus in his stretch runs, and had a quirky way of going that wasn't pretty, but got the job done.

Just like the Met Mile got miscast in its supporting role, Vekoma, too, was miscast in the spring of 2019 as a bona fide 10-furlong contender on the GI Kentucky Derby trail.

He ran a credible third in the GII Fountain of Youth S. despite being outmuscled off the turn by eventual winner Code of Honor (Noble Mission {GB}). Then he forced the pace on the front end to win the GII Toyota Blue Grass S., but that victory was aided by a speed-friendly Keeneland surface (seven of eight main-track winners that day were first or second at the second call), and it signaled the two-turn breakthrough might have been bias-enhanced.

Since hardly anyone wins a Derby prep in April then skips the Derby itself, Vekoma got tossed into the deep end of the sophomore pool on the first Saturday in May. He broke alertly, opted for a four-deep position to avoid slop kickback, then appeared physically overmatched when the brawnier Country House bulled by for his via-DQ winning run. “At least he came back in one piece,” Weaver quipped after the colt's 13th-place finish.

Vekoma got nearly 11 months off and returned this past March with more muscle on his frame and far fewer focus issues. He still has that offbeat front action. But when he posted a 102 Beyer coming off the shelf in the Sir Shackleton S. at Gulfstream, then followed up with a 7 1/4-length, 110-Beyer trouncing of a respectable field in the GI Runhappy Carter H. June 6 (both over seven furlongs), the emphasis started to shift away from how Vekoma looks when he runs to how imposing a presence he's developed.

As Weaver told TDN's Chris McGrath last month, this colt is now “all man.”

In the Met Mile, Vekoma beat a field that boasted 20 combined graded stakes victories. 'TDN Rising Star' McKinzie (Street Sense), who was a trip-troubled second in last year's deep edition of the Met Mile, made an all-out bid, but could fare no better than sixth as the beaten favorite. Code of Honor, who assertively put Vekoma in his place twice when they met last year at age three, now was the one who submitted in the final furlong, checking in third despite digging in and trying hard.

“At the quarter pole, for a brief moment, I didn't know if he had any horse in the tank or not,” Weaver said of Vekoma after the race. “But at the eighth pole, I saw him re-break and I was so proud of him.”

Vekoma's Met Mile win did come over a drying-out main track that leaned slightly toward speed-favoring (three wire winners and one presser from five dirt races) and produced some quick clockings (the GIII Victory Ride S. for 3-year-old fillies earlier on the card was only a hundredth of a second off the track record for 6 1/2 furlongs).

Vekoma's Met Mile tally earned him a Breeders' Cup “Win and You're In” berth into the GI Big Ass Fans Dirt Mile, just like his Carter score last month earned him a similar free pass into the GI Sprint.

Vekoma is now 5-for-5 in one-turn races. He hasn't run six furlongs, the Sprint distance, since his career debut. And because this year's Breeders' Cup will be held at Keeneland, the two-turn Dirt Mile configuration could also prove challenging to his one-turn sweet spot.

With a circumference of 1 1/16 miles, flat miles on the main surface are not generally carded at Keeneland because of the disadvantageously short run into the first turn that would hamper outside-drawn horses. In 2015, when the track hosted the Breeders' Cup for the first time, the solution called for the Dirt Mile starting gate to be placed 70 yards ahead of the mile pole. This creates a relatively long 210-foot run-up before the timing starts, with the race finishing at the sixteenth pole.

No holiday thaw in Maryland Lasix Standoff

The prospect of 2-year-old racing in Maryland is still being held “hostage” by The Stronach Group (TSG), according to the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (MTHA).

“Unless the Maryland Racing Commission (MRC) directs otherwise, there will be no 2-year-old races in Maryland in 2020 in light of the refusal of TSG, owner of the Maryland Jockey Club, to card 2-year-old races [at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course] unless they are Lasix-free,” the MTHA stated in a page-one update in its just-released July newsletter.

After failing to gain permission from the MRC for Lasix-free juvenile races at a contentious July 25 commission meeting, the MTHA and TSG reportedly tried to come to a compromise just prior to the Independence Day weekend, according to the MTHA's version of events.

“In an effort to defuse the crisis, get 2-year-old races carded, and help the industry continue to recover from the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, the MTHA Board of Directors on July 1 offered to TSG to permit 2-year-old races to be carded for the next 90 days, with 50% of such races to be run under the current rules and 50% of the races to be run Lasix-free, and commence discussions with TSG and the new MRC Safety and Wel-fare Committee on future Lasix policy,” the MTHA stated.

“The offer was promptly rejected by TSG, but TSG offered that it would be willing to card some non-Lasix Maryland-bred 2-year-old races with bonuses paid by TSG. The MTHA unanimously rejected this offer,” the MTHA newsletter stated.

“Trainers have been conditioning 2-year-olds for months waiting for a race. Owners and breeders are taking a major financial hit, particularly with Maryland-bred 2-year-olds that must race in state to qualify for the lucrative owner and breeder bonuses that are depended upon to sustain their operations. On July 1, a $40,000 MSW event at Delaware Park was split into two divisions, each with seven horses–almost all Maryland-based,” the MTHA stated.

Sharking the Odds

It turns out that horse racing hasn't been the only animal-based competition trying to attract gambling dollars from bettors who would normally be wagering on team sports during the coronavirus lockdown.

The New York Times reported last week that MyBookie, an online sports bookmaker, began taking action on the summer migration patterns of nine great white sharks.

“The company's website displayed odds on various aspects of each shark's travel itinerary, using data mined from Ocearch, a nonprofit that's been tracking the animals' movements for years,” Katherine J. Wu reported. “An interactive map on Ocearch's website monitors shark migration in near-real time, providing gamblers ample fodder for wagers–akin, perhaps, to a virtual horse race, conducted entirely at sea.”

The founder of Ocearch said in the article that the bookmaker began offering the bets without explicit permission to use the shark tracking data.

According to the article, “staff members at Ocearch asked MyBookie to suspend the site [June 17], just hours after it had gone live. The two organizations are now negotiating, and it's unclear whether the (now defunct) shark betting endeavor will resume.”

Although some people came out against the idea of sharks being paired with a betting endeavor, the article pointed out that some conservationists actually approve of the pairing, particularly if the betting can foster interest as “a new way for the public to engage with sharks.” One idea proposed by a marine biologist called for the bookmaker to offer a cut of the action in the form of donations to shark researchers, “who work in a field that is often in need of more financial support.”

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