Updated on 05/30/2013 9:52AM

Belmont Park: Sahara Sky by a nose in Metropolitan Handicap

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Barbara D. Livingston
Sahara Sky and jockey Joel Rosario get up in the last stride to win the Met Mile.

ELMONT, N.Y. – Cross Traffic had fended off the early pace challenge of Handsome Mike and then turned back a stretch bid from Mark Valeski. With a furlong to go in Monday’s 120th Metropolitan Handicap, it looked as though Cross Traffic was going to avenge his tough head loss in the Grade 3 Westchester Handicap last month.

But storming down the middle of the Belmont Park main strip came Sahara Sky, who, under Joel Rosario, needed every centimeter of the 1,097-foot Belmont stretch to run down Cross Traffic and win the Grade 1, $750,000 Met Mile by a nose before a crowd of 11,664 on a gorgeous Memorial Day on Long Island.

Cross Traffic, making just his fourth career start, finished second by 3 1/2 lengths over Flat Out, who encountered traffic trouble at the five-sixteenths pole but still managed to get third. He was followed by Mark Valeski, Fed Biz, Fort Loudon, Swagger Jack, Handsome Mike, and Discreet Dancer.

It was the first Grade 1 win for Sahara Sky, a 5-year-old son of Pleasant Tap trained by Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer and owned by Hollendorfer and Kim Lloyd.

“My partner and I talked it over, and one of our goals was to win the Metropolitan Mile,” Hollendorfer said. “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 better trip, we might have even won that race.”

The loss by Cross Traffic capped a frustrating afternoon for trainer Todd Pletcher, who finished second and fourth in the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps and third in the Grade 1 Acorn.

“He had to defend himself every step of the way; he had to fight off Mark Valeski,” Pletcher said. “I just think the other horse made a move so far out in the middle of the track that I don’t think he really saw him because he was right back in front after the wire.”

Sahara Sky was last as Cross Traffic, who, breaking from the rail, was carried in briefly at the start by stablemate Discreet Dancer, assumed the lead, and set fractions of 22.40 seconds and 44.88 for the opening half-mile while being pressed by Handsome Mike.

When Handsome Mike dropped back, Mark Valeski, under Rosie Napravnik, pounced and appeared to put a head in front in upper stretch.

Emboldened by the challenge, Cross Traffic came back and spurted clear under John Velazquez. But Sahara Sky, who had split horses deftly at the quarter pole, came five or six wide turning for home. Rosario kept him out in the middle of the track and stormed home to just get up in the final jump.

“I wanted to be away from horses because when he gets to horses, he kind of waits a little bit,” Rosario said. “Maybe if I keep him by myself, he’s going to be a little better; that’s what I figured.”

Velazquez, who rode Cross Traffic, said Rosario keeping Sahara Sky that far out made the difference.

“The other horse is so far out in the middle of the track, he never saw him,” Velazquez said. “If he would have come close to [Cross Traffic], I’m pretty sure he would have put another fight to him.”

Sahara Sky covered the mile in 1:34.17 and returned $11.60 to win.

Flat Out, the 5-2 favorite who had won four graded stakes in four races over Belmont’s main track, did well to be third after bumping with Swagger Jack at the five-sixteenths pole when another horse to his outside came down on him.

Junior Alvarado, the rider of Flat Out, said that incident cost him the race.

“When I asked my horse, he didn’t respond to me right away,” Alvarado said. “By the time I got in the hole, there was another horse trying to get through, and the horse outside definitely came down. The bumping and clipping heels took me out of the race completely. He should have won the race for sure.”