Sahara Sky made an unwavering charge from last to defeat a resilient Cross Traffic by a nose in the 120th running of the Metropolitan Handicap (G1) on Monday at Belmont Park.
Attempting to avenge a close loss in the Grade 1 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct Racetrack in his most recent start, Sahara Sky took his customary spot at the rear of the field as Cross Traffic set fractions of 22.40 and 44.88 seconds after being forced inward at the start by his stablemate, Discreet Dancer.
Following three-quarters in a fast 1:09.20 as Cross Traffic edged clear of Handsome Mike, Sahara Sky commenced a rally under Joel Rosario. Mark Valeski took a run at Cross Traffic turning for home but could not sustain his bid, leaving Cross Traffic and Sahara Sky to decide the outcome.
With a furlong to travel, Cross Traffic led Sahara Sky by 2 ½ lengths, but the stretch runner continued his inexorable rally and got his nose down on the wire to earn his first Grade 1 victory and third graded stakes score.
“I was thinking I won, but it was so close and I was so far to the outside, sometimes it’s hard to tell,” Rosario told NYRA Press. “I thought we had a head in front, but the angle was different and I didn’t know.”
Sahara Sky, the 9-2 third choice in the field of nine, returned $11.60 to his backers in the Memorial Day crowd of 11,664 and completed one mile in 1:34.17.
“He’s the kind of horse that makes one little, late run,” said Rosario. “If you push him a little early, he kind of stays there, but when he’s like that, far back, he’ll give it to you. I think he ran a very good race today.”
Sahara Sky, a 5-year-old, was purchased privately by Kim Lloyd and Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer after debuting a 4 ¼-length winner in a maiden claiming race at Delta Downs in November 2010.
In his first 11 starts for his new connections, Sahara Sky posted a record of 3-2-4 before blossoming into a graded stakes horse. He opened his 2013 campaign with a pair of wins at Santa Anita, taking the Grade 2 Palos Verdes and Grade 2 San Carlos, and finished second in the Carter on April 6.
“My partner [co-owner Kim Lloyd] and I talked it over, and one of our goals was to win the Metropolitan Mile,” said Hollendorfer, who is based in California. “I’d never won it, and I wanted a chance to win it, and Kim did, also. We had a little added confidence because we thought our horse ran good in New York over at Aqueduct and with a little bit better trip we might have even won that race.”
Overall, Sahara Sky, a son of Pleasant Tap, is 7-3-4 in 16 starts and has earned $886,680, including $450,000 for his Met Mile triumph.
Hollendorfer said Sahara Sky will fly back to California on Thursday and that the horse will get a break before he makes his next start.
“The way he ran today, it looks like he could get off a little more ground,” said Hollendorfer. “I’ll watch the films and watch the gallop out and see what I think about that, but it might be a possibility to look at [longer races]. I don’t want to keep flying him across the country, though.”
For Cross Traffic, it was the second tough loss in as many starts, with the lightly raced 4-year-old having lost the Grade 3 Westchester by a head to Flat Out on April 27 at Belmont.
“He ran good and got nailed at the wire,” said Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez of Cross Traffic. “There’s not much else to say.”
Favored Flat Out finished third, beaten 3 ½ lengths, in his first loss in five starts at Belmont Park. In addition to the Westchester, Flat Out won the 2011 and 2012 editions of the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup and the 2011 Grade 2 Suburban Handicap.
“At the three-eighths pole I had a hole and wanted to get in a better position so he could pick it up, and it took a while for him to get that position,” said Junior Alvarado, jockey aboard Flat Out. “And then the hole closed and I had to check him. That definitely cost us the race. He should have won that race. After that [incident], I thought he was going to finish last after all the bumping and clipping heels and everything. I thought he wouldn’t give me anything after that, but he did.
Mark Valeski faded to fourth and was followed by Fed Biz, Fort Loudon, Swagger Jack, Handsome Mike, and Discreet Dancer.
NYRA Photo by Chelsea Durand