Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer sent his 6-year-old son of Pleasant Tap to New York last year for two outings; first he missed the Carter by three-quarters of a length to Swagger Jack, then he earned a game victory by a nose over Cross Traffic in the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) last May.
Next it was to the sidelines for Sahara Sky, his season cut short by injury. He returned for Hollendorfer, who owns him in partnership with Kim Lloyd's Sweetwater Stable, Feb. 2 with a fifth in the Palos Verdes Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita Park. But he got back to winning last time out when making his familiar closing run to take the March 8 San Carlos Stakes (gr. II) by half a length.
"He ran well in the Carter last year, and the timing of this race works well for us and it carries a nice purse," Hollendorfer said. "I didn't have him fit enough in the Palos Verdes, so I'll blame myself for that one. He still ran a pretty good race that day, and the Santa Anita track can be speed-biased. Last time, he got a little lucky as we were able to get him off the rail, and he came with a strong run."
Corey Nakatani picks up the mount from post 6 on Sahara Sky, 122-pound highweight and 2-1 morning-line favorite in a field of seven older runners. His principal competition appears to come from grade I winners Strapping Groom and Golden Ticket, who have both shown good form in recent starts.
Strapping Groom, a 7-year-old son of Johannesburg who upset the Forego Stakes (gr. I) last summer at Saratoga Race Course, comes in off a convincing victory by a length over Dads Caps in the Tom Fool Handicap (gr. III) March 1. He also won the Gravesend Handicap Dec. 21 at the Big A and was second Nov. 28 in the Fall Highweight Handicap (gr. III) while shouldering 135 pounds; he has won five stakes, topped by the Forego, since being claimed for $35,000 in May 2013 by trainer David Jacobson and Drawing Away Stable.
In four starts at Aqueduct through his 27-race career, Strapping Groom has two wins and two seconds. Irad Ortiz Jr. gets the return call from post 5. Strapping Groom carries 120 pounds and is the 4-1 third choice on the morning line.
"We're excited coming into the Carter," Jacobson said. "He's 100 percent. His last couple of races have been very good, and the Forego was the toughest race, as far as I'm concerned. The waters are deep here. We're concerned about them, but I'm sure they're concerned about us."
Dads Caps gets in light for trainer Rudy Rodriguez, and has been knocking at the door with runner-up efforts in each of his past three starts. The 4-year-old son of Discreet Cat , to carry 114 pounds from the 4 hole with Luis Contreras aboard, was second in the Feb. 1 Toboggan Stakes (gr. III) by three-quarters of a length to Candyman E after missing the Dec. 13 Spooky Mulder by the same margin to the same rival.
Golden Ticket, winner of the 2012 Travers Stakes (gr. I) in a dead-heat with Alpha , comes in off a second by a head to 2013 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Palace Malice in the March 8 Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II) at a mile. His rally after ducking in at the start just missed, but the Speightstown runner was making his first start of 2014 and first since an eighth in the Nov. 29 Clark Handicap (gr. I) following a runner-up finish in the Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. I).
Although Golden Ticket has never won at less than a mile, and actually put together two of his best wins going a route, his breeding suggests sprinting is a task he could handle. The last time he raced going short was in 2011 while still a maiden. Javier Castellano comes in to ride the 3-1 morning-line second choice from post 3; Golden Ticket carries 118 pounds.
Trainer Al Stall Jr. has another Speightstown colt, Klaravich Stables and William Lawrence's well-traveled Central Banker , who was second by half a length Dec. 26 in the Malibu Stakes (gr. I) going the Carter distance at Santa Anita last time out. Central Banker was second in the six-furlong Thanksgiving Handicap at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots to Gantry, and ran third last summer in the King's Bishop Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga. Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez rides from the rail as part of a 117-pound impost.
Also making his season debut is Up Hill Stable's multiple grade III winner Clearly Now, who took the Bold Ruler Handicap (gr. III) last October at Belmont Park and won the Swale Stakes (gr. III) at Gulfstream early in his 3-year-old season. The 4-year-old Horse Greeley colt has not started since a troubled fifth in the Nov. 30 Cigar Mile Handicap (gr. I).
Clearly Now took a step forward this fall when outfitted with blinkers, winning the Bold Ruler by 1 1/2 lengths and threatening in the Cigar Mile before he clipped the leader's heels while racing in third turning for home.
"He clipped heels and almost went down, which was unfortunate because he was full of run," said trainer Brian Lynch. "He had a laceration at the bottom of his sesamoids which required 14 stitches. The vet did an excellent job. We kept him in the barn for a while before we started building him up slowly, with the Met Mile (on June 7) being our direction."
Completing the field is Mike McCarty's allowance winner Saturday's Charm, a 5-year-old son of Any Given Saturday who is still seeking an elusive graded victory. He was third in the Tom Fool to start his season, and departs the outside with Manuel Franco carrying 112.
$500,000 Carter Handicap (gr. I, Race 11, approximate post 6:14 p.m. EDT), 3YOs & Up, seven furlongs (dirt)
PP, Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, Odds
1. Central Banker (KY), J. Velazquez, 117, A Stall Jr., 5-1
2. Clearly Now (KY), J. Ortiz, 117, B Lynch, 5-1
3. Golden Ticket (KY), J. Castellano, 118, K McPeek, 3-1
4. Dads Caps (KY), L. Contreras, 114, R Rodriguez, 12-1
5. Strapping Groom (KY), I. Ortiz Jr., 120, D Jacobson, 4-1
6. Sahara Sky (FL), C. Nakatani, 122, J. Hollendorfer, 2-1
7. Saturday's Charm (KY), M. Franco, 112, S Asmussen, 20-1