Flaxman Holding's homebred Aldebaran swept past the leaders entering the stretch and then held off a determined Saarland for a game victory in the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) on the Memorial Day card at Belmont Park.
The winner and runner-up were not among the early leaders as Najran took charge at the break and set opening fractions of :22 1/5 and :44 2/5. Congaree, the 124-pound highweight seeking a rare double in the Metropolitan and the Carter Handicap, took a brief lead leaving the turn in the mile test, but was quickly overtaken by Aldebaran and jockey Jerry Bailey.
As Aldebaran continued his momentum en route to the finish, Saarland and jockey John Velazquez closed strongly from far back to just miss catching the winner, finishing a neck back in second.
Aldebaran returned $10.80, $5.50 and $5.70. Saarland paid $7.50 and $8.40 and Peeping Tom returned $17.60 for show. Time for the race over a sloppy track was 1:34.15.
Proud Citizen was fourth, followed by Justification, 4-5 favorite Congaree, Najran and Wake At Noon.
Trained by Bobby Frankel, 5-year-old Aldebaran made up for his second to Swept Overboard in last year's Metropolitan as the son of Mr. Prospector notched his sixth victory in his 21st career start. The millionaire has 12 runner-up finishes and two thirds to his credit. Previous to the Metropolitan, Aldebaran won Santa Anita's grade I San Carlos, was second to Congaree in the grade I Carter, and won the Churchill Downs Handicap (gr. II) on May 3.
"On paper, it looked like they would be flying up front," Bailey said. "I actually got to the leaders quicker than I thought I would. I didn't know who it was at the time, but it wound up being Saarland. He was flying on the outside. I hit my horse left-handed and he ducked out. I had to straighten him up real fast, and when I did, he gave me another surge. He was good enough to win."
Said Velazquez: "Aldebaran came out a little bit. He didn't bump me, but when he went back inside, my horse was there all alone. He dug in, but when Jerry (Bailey on Aldebaran) went back inside, he wanted to loaf. I thought he ran a huge race, though. If he could have placed himself a little better in the first part, he would have won. I can't really change his style of running. I tried today, sending him out the first five jumps, but he still didn't get the bridle."
"I had a real good feeling about him all day today," said Frankel. "He's been acting so good all week. The horses that laid back there finished 1-2. He got beat twice on a wet track: once by Congaree, and once by Orientate. So, those were both good races. Jerry (Bailey) has learned to take him back a little farther than he has been. That's what he wants to do. With his pedigree, this is a huge win. This race looked like it would set up for him. He's worth a lot of money as a stallion now. I don't know what I'm going to do with him. He's running good. I might just fire him back in again. When I freshened him up, he wasn't running as good. We'll see how he acts."
Saarland may be under consideration for the grade II, $250,000 Brooklyn Handicap at nine furlongs at Belmont Park on Saturday, June 14.
"I was pleased with the effort," said Saarland's trainer, Shug McGaughey. "I had thought they might go a little faster during the first part of the race. He may have gotten a little intimidated by the winner in the stretch, but he ran hard. If all goes well, we'll look at the Brooklyn."
Six-year-old Peeping Tom was three lengths behind Saarland in third
"I thought he ran a terrific race," said trainer Pat Reynolds. "He was beaten by two quality horses. He ran his race every step of the way. He tries every time. This was a true grade I race. I'll probably run him one more time before giving him the summer off. He doesn't like hot weather."
"He was basically all-out at the quarter-pole," jockey Gary Stevens of Congaree. "I'm baffled. I would be surprised if he bled -- when we pulled up, he wasn't making any noise. I squeezed him at the three-eighths pole. He was running as well as he could. He just didn't have it."