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Submitted by Noel Michaels on Thursday, April 3, 2014 at 12:00 AM

Strapping Groom defends home court in deep G1 Carter

Strapping Groom, a winner of two straight on the inner track, will take on out-of-state invaders Sahara Sky, Golden Ticket, Central Banker, and Clearly Now on Saturday at Aqueduct Racetrack in the 114th running of the Grade 1, $500,000 Carter Handicap for 3-year-olds and up.

The seven-furlong Carter also attracted Dads Caps and Saturday’s Charm and was carded as the 11th race on the 12-race Wood Memorial card.

Strapping Groom has won five stakes, topped by a victory in the Grade 1 Forego, since being claimed for $35,000 in May 2013 by trainer David Jacobson, who owns the son of Johannesburg in partnership with Drawing Away Stable.

After holding on to win the Forego by a half-length in the slop in August at Saratoga Race Course, Strapping Groom made a pair of starts at Belmont, finishing third in the Grade 1 Vosburgh Invitational in September and fourth in the Grade 3 Bold Ruler Handicap in October. He was second in the Grade 3 Fall Highweight on Aqueduct’s main track in November before he returned to winning form on the inner track by taking the Gravesend Handicap by 6 ½ lengths in December and in the Grade 3 Tom Fool Handicap by one length on March 1. The Forego and the Bold Ruler were contested at the Carter’s seven-furlong distance, while the Vosburgh, Fall Highweight, Gravesend, and Tom Fool were six furlongs.

Jacobson admitted before the race that Strapping Groom wasn’t completely fit coming into the Tom Fool, but the 7-year-old still managed to track the pace, tip outside, and wear down Dads Caps in the stretch. He’s entering the Carter in top shape, Jacobson said.

"We’re excited coming into [the Carter]," said Jacobson. "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."

Strapping Groom, the 4-1 third choice on the morning line, will leave from post 5 with Irad Ortiz, Jr. aboard.

California-based Sahara Sky, who is trained by Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, is returning to Aqueduct for the first time since finishing second by three-quarters of a length in the 2013 edition of the Carter. He rallied from last to win the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap by a nose in May at Belmont in his final start of the year. In two starts at Santa Anita in 2014, he was last of five in the Grade 2, six-furlong Palos Verdes in February and won by a half-length in the Grade 2, seven-furlong San Carlos on March 8.

In the San Carlos, Sahara Sky was caught in traffic in eighth place on the turn and didn’t find a seam until the eighth pole. Once presented with a hole, the 6-year-old employed a burst of speed and overhauled the leaders in the final 30 yards.

"He ran well in the Carter last year, and the timing of this race works well for us and it carries a nice purse," said Hollendorfer, who owns Sahara Sky along with Sweetwater Stable. "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, aboard Sahara Sky in his fifth-place finish in the Palos Verdes, has the assignment aboard the 2-1 morning-line favorite in the Carter.

Another Carter contender who made his most recent start at Santa Anita is Klaravich Stables and William H. Lawrence’s Central Banker, second by a half-length in the Grade 1, seven-furlong Malibu on December 26. Central Banker won the Smirnoff Sorbet Quick Call on the turf at Saratoga in July and is seeking his first stakes win on the dirt, having finished third in Saratoga’s Grade 1 Foxwoods King’s Bishop and second in the Fair Grounds’ Thanksgiving Handicap. He has been training at the Fair Grounds since the Malibu.

"There wasn’t anything at the Fair Grounds, and we know seven eighths is a distance he really likes," said trainer Al Stall, Jr. "We decided to target the Carter right after the Malibu. We gave him a breather, but recently he’s been getting a steady dose of the inside rail."

Central Banker has earned bullets for his final three workouts coming into the Carter: a 1:00 3/5 five-furlong breeze on March 14, a 1:00 five-furlong breeze on March 21, and a 48-second four-furlong breeze on March 28.

"He’s lazy," said Stall. "We’ve been working him in company recently, and he’s been going faster. We had no idea [at the beginning of his career] that he could become a Grade 1 horse. He only went through the motions in the morning, but he showed up in the afternoon. He’ll show up in the Carter, guaranteed."

Central Banker, 5-1, drew post 1. Hall of Famer John Velazquez has the call.

Also returning from a layoff is Up Hill Stable’s Clearly Now, a 4-year-old who is unraced since finishing a troubled fifth in Aqueduct’s Grade 1 Cigar Mile Handicap on November 30.

Clearly Now, who won the 2013 Grade 3 Swale and was second by a head in the Grade 3 Bay Shore on last year’s Wood Memorial undercard, took a step forward this fall when outfitted with blinkers. Since the equipment change, he has won Belmont’s Grade 3 Bold Ruler by 1 ½ lengths and was 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 [Grade 1] Met Mile [on June 7] being our direction."

Jose Ortiz will ride Clearly Now, 5-1, from post 2.

The 3-1 second choice on the morning line is Golden Ticket, who won the 2012 Grade 1 Travers via dead heat. Since taking the Prairie Meadows Handicap by eight lengths in July, the Magic City Thoroughbred Partners representative has finished fourth in the Grade 1 Awesome Again in September, second in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in November, eighth in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap in November, and second by a head in his most recent start, the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap on March 8. The Gulfstream Park Handicap winner, Palace Malice, returned to take the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap on Saturday.

Golden Ticket, trained by Ken McPeek, drew post 3. Javier Castellano will ride.

The field for the Grade 1, $500,000 Carter Handicap:










Central Banker (KY)



J R. Velazquez


A M. Stall, Jr.



Clearly Now (KY)



J L. Ortiz


B A. Lynch



Golden Ticket (KY)



J Castellano


K G. McPeek



Dads Caps (KY)



L Contreras





Strapping Groom (KY)



I Ortiz, Jr.


D Jacobson



Sahara Sky (FL)



C S. Nakatani





Saturday’s Charm (KY)



M Franco





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