The Met Mile

You knew it was coming, right? You knew that I couldn’t let the historic Met Mile go by without delving a little—or a lot—into its history?

The Met Mile (official name: Metropolitan Handicap) is the first Grade I of the year at Belmont, and it was inaugurated in 1891, when it was won by a six-year-old named Tristan. Until 1904, it was run at Morris Park, the race track operated in what is now the Bronx by John Morris and Leonard Jerome. In 1890, both the Preakness and the Belmont were run at Morris Park, leading me to believe that it’s the only track with the distinction of having hosted two legs of the Triple Crown in the same year.

That first Met Mile at Morris Park, with its downhill course, reunites us with Tenny, about whose match race with Salvator at Sheepshead Bay I wrote a couple of days ago. A year after his defeat in that race, he came to Morris Park heavily favored in the Metropolitan Handicap, and as he had the previous year, walked away defeated.

Tenny’s appearance that day in June might have been overshadowed by a death in one of racing’s ruling families. Mrs. M.F. Dwyer, wife of Michael Dwyer, died the day before the Metropolitan Handicap. Michael Dwyer, her husband, was president of the New-Jersey Jockey Club; his brother Philip was president of the Queens County Jockey Club, and together, the men operated the Gravesend Race Track (1887 – 1910) on Coney Island. The Grade II Dwyer at Belmont is named for them, and they owned the great Hindoo, winner of too many stakes races to mention here, including the 1881 Kentucky Derby and Travers.

As a result of the death of Mrs. Dwyer, the fields of several races were reduced considerably, as all of the Dwyer horses (nine of them) were scratched. The scratches in the fourth race resulted in a walkover for a horse named Drizzle (no relation, it appears, to Drizzly, who makes frequent appearances on the New York circuit). The Dwyers seem to have uncanny timing, as in 1917, Phil Dwyer became ill at the races and died on the day of the Suburban. The New York Times reported that “the news of the noted turfman’s death was telephoned to the Belmont Park racetrack, casting a gloom over the later races” (New York Times).

The bettors discouraged by the short fields on Met Mile Day 1891 had a chance to recoup in the feature, as the favored Tenny was beaten by Tristan “in such a fashion as to stamp him as one of the best handicap horses in training just at this time.” Once again, the unnamed turf writers of the 19th century New York Times tell the story:

The time made—1:51½ [for the mile and an eighth]—was phenomenal, for the climb
over the hill is one that makes the Westchester track slower than those with a
perfectly level course. Yet Tristan successfully negotiated the distance in one
and one-quarter seconds better than the record time, that made by Tenton last
year over the Washington Park track at Chicago, a track which is said to be at
least two seconds faster than any Eastern track, because it was prepared for
trotters. (New York Times)

My parents owned harness horses when I was young, and I swear that I remember their telling me that it was against the rules for them to bet other horses to win in races in which their horses were running. I don’t know whether that was true then, or if it’s true now (I know that someone will set me straight), but it certainly wasn’t true in 1891:

That Tristan could defeat Tenny not even his owner believed, and Mr. Appleby is
a pretty shrewd horseman, too. He backed Tenny to win the race and his own horse
in the place and the one-two-three books, believing that Tenny would win and
Clarendon give his own horse a hard flight for the place. After the race, while
naturally elated at the success of his horse and the winning of a stake worth
$7,425, he was disgruntled because he didn’t back his horse to win and in that
way have accomplished a coup that would have given his fellow-bookmakers a
“facer.” His former partner, Dave Johnson, and “Pittsburgh Phil,” the plunger,
both held Tristan out in their books and laid up against Tenny, and both, in
consequence, made a lot of money. (New York Times)

Though betting practices were perhaps different, racing practices were not:

The race was a remarkable one, for Tournament and Clarendon, who cut out the
running for the field, ran lapped for a mile and over the hill in 1:38½, the
fastest mile ever run on that track. That pace killed their chance of winning,
and it also killed Tenny’s chance probably, as Isaac Murphy, who rode the winner
of the Brooklyn Handicap, was ordered to look out for Clarendon, as he was the
horse to beat. It took a lot out of Tenny to try and catch Clarendon in his run
over the hill, and probably took so much out of him that he was unable to stall
off Tristan’s rush at the end. (New York Times)

So Tenny lost the match race because he “sulked,” allowing Salvator to make the lead, and he lost this one because he chased the rabbit. What did this guy need to get to the wire first?

We are told of the eventual winner, Tristan:

[Jockey G. Taylor] let the leaders race themselves “dead tired,” and then
came from his position, which was absolutely last a quarter of a mile from the
finish, caught the tired leaders, and with much the freshest horse went to
the front and won with absolute ease by a length from Tenny… (New
York Times
)

Fans of Commentator will hope that no such strategies beat this year’s heavy favorite, as they did Tenny in 1891.

The Met Mile is the first leg of the Handicap Triple Crown; the other two are the Brooklyn Handicap (June 6th) and the Suburban (June 28th). Fit to Fight is the last horse to win all three, in 1984, and given the current racing landscape, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a horse talented enough to win this Triple Crown sticking around long enough to give it a go. Sexy as the Derby/Preakness/Belmont Triple is, I think that I’d rather see a winner of the Handicap version; imagine a horse that we’d follow through his sophomore season, and then watch take on his peers and older horses in these classic races.

It’s been thirty years since our last three-year-old Triple Crown winner, of whom there have been eleven; it’s been twenty-four years since the last handicap Triple Crown winner, and there have only been four of them. These days, I wonder which would be considered the more impressive?

**********************************

Sources:

“Death of Mrs. M.F. Dwyer.” The New York Times. 3 June 1891. Nytimes.com. 25 May 2008.

“Phil Dwyer Dies as Suburban is Ended.” The New York Times. 10 June 1917. Nytimes.com. 25 May 2008.

“Tenny Beaten by Tristan.” The New York Times. 3 June 1891. Nytimes.com. 25 May 2008.

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