03/08/2014 8:18PM

Santa Anita: Sahara Sky as good as ever defending San Carlos title

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ARCADIA, Calif. – There may have been doubts after his return race five weeks ago, but on Saturday, Sahara Sky showed he’s back.

Last of 10 with a quarter-mile remaining in Grade 2, $250,000 San Carlos Stakes, Sahara Sky unleashed a strong closing charge while splitting horses to get up and win the seven-furlong race for the second straight year.

The victory puts him on track for a defense of his title in the Met Mile at Belmont Park, to be run this year on Belmont Stakes Day.

“That’s the goal,” said Jerry Hollendorfer, who trains and is a co-owner of Sahara Sky.

Sahara Sky did not hit the front until just before the wire and prevailed by a half-length over Big Macher in a finish that saw the first five runners separated by two lengths.

Clubhouse Ride was a head farther back in third, a nose in front of Wild Dude, who was one length in front of Shakin It Up. Midnight Transfer, Let’s Get Crackin, Ready for More, Cyclometer, and Zeewat completed the finish, in that order.

Sahara Sky covered seven furlongs on the fast main track in 1:20.84.

Joel Rosario, who rode Sahara Sky, said he was committed to trying to stay inside and hoping for room after breaking from the rail.

“I didn’t want to go around,” Rosario said. “Hopefully I could find room and split them. You have to sit and hope. I checked inside, nowhere to go. Then I found room.”

Sahara Sky ($8.80) was the second choice, to Shakin It Up’s 7-5. He has now won 8 of  18 starts.

Hollendorfer owns Sahara Sky with the Sweetwater Stable of Barretts Sales executive Kim Lloyd. He turned Sahara Sky out last summer, and did not bring him back until the Palos Verdes on Feb. 2, in which he finished last of five while beaten just 3 1/2 lengths by Wild Dude. That was his first start since the Met Mile.

“The difference between how he’s training now and how he was at Del Mar last summer is night and day,” Hollendorfer said. “Two years in a row we took him to Del Mar and he said, ‘I’m not gonna do this.’ ”

After that, Hollendorfer decided to give Sahara Sky a lengthy vacation, bypass any fall races like the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, and point for a 2014 campaign.

“It’s been a long time getting him back to where he’s supposed to be,” Hollendorfer said.