Sahara Sky, invading from Southern California for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, needed every inch of the long Belmont Park stretch run to catch pacesetting Cross Traffic in a heart-pounding finish to the $750,000 Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) May 27 (VIDEO).
A tough-luck second in the Carter Handicap (gr. I) at Aqueduct Racetrack April 6, 9-2 shot Sahara Sky's return trip to New York paid big dividends for his Hall of Fame trainer, who owns the 5-year-old son of Pleasant Tap with Kim Lloyd. This was the first grade I victory for Sahara Sky.
Joel Rosario brought Sahara Sky wide off the turn, avoiding traffic issues that affected 5-2 favorite Flat Out . Sahara Sky methodically advanced through the lane after Cross Traffic had put away Mark Valeski near the eighth pole. Under strong urging from Rosario, Sahara Sky hit the Met Mile wire a short nose in front while timed in 1:34.17 over a fast track.
"I was thinking I won, but it was so close and I was so far to the outside, sometimes it's hard to tell," said Rosario, whose remarkable run in top-level races continues. "I thought we had a head in front, but the angle was different and I didn't know."
Cross Traffic, headed by Flat Out in the Westchester Stakes (gr. III) April 27 at Belmont, had to settle for second once more after flashing blazing quarter mile fractions of :22.40, :44.68, and 1:09.20. Flat Out, two-time winner of the Jockey Gold Cup (gr. I) for trainer Bill Mott, was third, suffering his first loss in five tries at Belmont.
Sahara Sky, bred in Florida by Martin Stables, is out of the Storm Cat mare Seeking the Sky, a grade III winner whose five foals to race have all been winners. He began his career for A.C. and Jane Hebert and trainer Jeff Hebert in Louisiana, but caught Hollendorfer's eye after winning his debut by 4 1/4 lengths at Delta Downs.
Purchased privately, Sahara Sky has raced exclusively for Hollendorfer since. Lloyd, his partner, is a former Southern California trainer who is general manager of the Barretts Equine Ltd., the auction firm based at Fairplex Park.
Fast-developing Sahara Sky won his graded stakes debut Jan. 19 at Santa Anita Park in the Palos Verdes Stakes (gr. II). In his next start, the seven-furlong San Carlos (gr. II), he won again, setting the stage for the Carter. In that race, The dark bay horse was forced to alter course at the three-sixteenth pole but finished well to be three-quarters of a length behind upset winner Swagger Jack .
"(We) talked it over, and one of our goals was to win the Metropolitan Mile," said Hollendorfer, who made the trip to Belmont. "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 (in the Carter), and with a little bit better trip we might have even won that race."
Sahara Sky raced last in the field of nine for the first half-mile as Cross Traffic, a step slow into stride from the rail for John Velazquez, shot to the front over Handsome Mike, with Discreet Dancer and Fort Loudon, and Mark Valeski in good stalking position.
Cross Traffic was under pressure all the way on the inside, engaging with Mark Valeski at the quarter pole and those two battled stiffly through the stretch before Cross Traffice began to inch clear at mid-stretch. He looked like a winner until the very last strides.
"He ran good and got nailed at the wire," Velazquez said of the runner-up. "There's not much else to say."
Sahara Sky, who advanced into sixth at the quarter pole, swung five wide for the drive and finished impressively while avoiding traffic issues. He drifted out in deep stretch under left-handed encouragement from Rosario, but got his head down just before the wire to take the bob.
"I told (Rosario) to watch his pace," Hollendorfer said. "We knew there was some speed to set that up, and I told him the horse likes left-handed whipping, so I told to hit both left- and right-handed, and he came running and got up the last jump.
"I'll take him back to California and give him a good, long time between races like we do, and we'll make a new decision on where to go. We give him a lot of time between races, and he rewards us every time.
"The way he ran today, it looks like he could get off a little more ground. 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. I don't want to keep flying him across the country, though."
Not so lucky were Flat Out and Swagger Jack, who was bottled up in traffic on the turn while trying to avoid being shuffled back. Flat Out was bumped in the tangle before drifting wide and finished with interest under a strong drive from Junior Alvarado while not threatening.
"He got bounced pretty good at the five-sixteenths pole," Mott said of the beaten favorite, who wound up 3 1/2 lengths behind the first two. "No doubt about it, they bounced him around pretty good."
Mark Valeski weakened to fourth, followed by Fed Biz, Fort Loudon, Swagger Jack, Handsome Mike, and Discreet Dancer.
Sahara Sky ran his career mark to 7-3-4 in 16 starts and more than doubled his earnings to $886,680.
He carried co-high weight of 120 pounds and paid $11.60, $6, and $3.80. Cross Traffic, from the Todd Pletcher stable for GoldMark Farm, paid $5.10 and $3.40 while rounding out a $77 exacta. Preston Stables' Flat Out, also carrying 120, paid $2.80 to show.