ELMONT, N.Y. -- Tizway and Tackleberry may have been out of their comfort zones in distance, circumference, and surface last month when they chased a million-dollar pot in the 1 1/8-mile Charles Town Classic run around three turns over a sloppy track.
Monday, both horses return to what they probably do best when they meet for the third straight time in the Grade 1, $500,000 Metropolitan Handicap, run as a one-turn mile at Belmont Park. And since Tizway is never better than he is at Belmont Park, perhaps the 6-year-old Tiznow colt rates a slight edge over his 4-year-old counterpart in a seemingly wide-open 118th renewal of the Met Mile, which tops an 11-race card that also includes the Grade 2, $150,000 Sands Point Stakes for 3-year-old fillies on the turf.
Tizway (5-1) and Tackleberry (6-1) are the second and third choices on the morning line set by Eric Donovan, who installed Grade 1 winner Haynesfield as a lukewarm 7-2 favorite. The winner of the Met Mile earns an automatic berth into the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile at Churchill Downs in November, with the Breeders' Cup paying pre-entry and entry fees as well as providing the winner's connections a $10,000 travel stipend.
Tizway was sent off the 3-1 second choice in last November's BC Dirt Mile, but finished fifth after moving between horses into a 44.94-second half-mile. Trainer Jim Bond wasn't happy with what he felt was a premature move by jockey Rajiv Maragh, but has kept Maragh on the horse.
In his first start this year, Tizway stalked Tackleberry, but couldn't run him down in the Gulfstream Park Handicap – a one-turn mile – when beaten a neck by that horse. He was also beaten a nose by Met Mile entrant Soaring Empire for second. In the Charles Town Classic, Tizway finished third, 1 3/4 lengths ahead of Tackleberry when both finished behind Duke of Mischief and Game on Dude.
"It was soup that day and Rajiv said he just didn't handle it like we'd want him,'' Bond said. "I still thought he ran gallantly.''
Tizway has done his best work at Belmont, where he has won three times, including the Grade 2 Kelso last October. In last year's Met Mile, he was beaten only three lengths by Quality Road in the third-fastest clocking of this race.
"He's doing good physically, it's a good field of horses, and at least I know he likes Belmont,'' Bond said. "He's pretty happy right now.''
Unheralded coming into the year, Tackleberry reeled off three consecutive stakes scores at Gulfstream Park in the Sunshine Millions Classic, the Grade 2 Gulfstream Sprint Championship, and the Gulfstream Park handicap. Owner/trainer Luis Olivares said Tackleberry bled in the Charles Town Classic, which is why he is putting him on Lasix for the first time in the Met Mile.
"I breeze him a couple of times on Lasix and he breezed real well,'' Olivares said.
Despite the large field, there doesn't appear to be a ton of speed in the Met Mile. Tackleberry could potentially control the pace from post 10 under Javier Santiago.
"I like the post he got,'' Olivares said. "He's outside, he can lay on the lead or he can lay second or third.''
Haynesfield has the speed to be a forward factor and his affinity for the Belmont main track makes him a worthy favorite. He is 5 for 7 at Belmont with wins in the Suburban and Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup last year. He is coming off a disappointing fourth-place finish when he pressed a hot early pace in the Grade 3 Westchester last month, his first start in six months.
Soaring Empire, who won the Grade 2 Hal's Hope before twice finishing second to Tackleberry, missed the Westchester with a bruised foot. But trainer Cam Gambolati has been able to get two stiff works into the colt at Monmouth Park.
"He worked some kind of good the other day,'' Gambolati said. "It's a very competitive race. I think he's going to love Belmont, big sweeping turns and that long stretch.''
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who won the Met last year with Quality Road, sends out the uncoupled trio of Caixa Eletronica, Ibboyee, and Aikenite. Caixa Eletronica, claimed for $62,500 by Pletcher and Mike Repole in March, came back to upset the Grade 3 Westchester here on April 30.
Aikenite has won two consecutive Grade 2 stakes going seven furlongs, defeating Ibboyee by one-half length in the Churchill Downs on Derby Day. Pletcher did note that there probably won't be "a brilliant pace'' in the Met.
"I think Ibboyee would benefit the most from a really hot pace, Aikenite is capable of working out a trip; he's not a deep closer,'' Pletcher said. "Caixa Eletronica will probably be the most forwardly placed of the group and can adapt to any pace scenario really.''
Stormy's Majesty and Kensei, who have performed well at Belmont, as well as Rodman and Yawanna Twist, complete the field.