NEW YORK (AP) - Front-runners can win big races, too.
Shackleford led from the start and held off a furious rush to the finish by Caleb's Posse for a nose victory in the $750,000 Metropolitan Handicap on a steamy Monday at Belmont Park.
The stretch run was a thriller.
Shackleford, as expected, took the lead out of the gate, and when the field turned for home Caleb's Posse came charging down the stretch. But the 2011 Preakness winner dug in, with hard-luck Caleb's Posse losing a photo finish for the third straight race.
Trained by Dale Romans, Shackleford covered the mile in 1:33.30, and returned $8.80 for a $2 win bet as the 3-1 second choice in perhaps the strongest field of older horses this year.
``He beat the best today,'' said Romans, who will send out Dullahan in the Belmont Stakes on June 9 in an attempt to upset Triple Crown hopeful I'll Have Another. ``It's as good a race as we've seen in a long time. He laid it all on the line.''
Romans sent out horses in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and watched as I'll Have Another rallied to beat front-running Bodemeister in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Shackleford scored one for the front-runners.
After his Preakness win, Shackleford lost his next seven starts before winning the Churchill Downs Stakes on May 5. Romans firmly believed then that his colt was back in the groove. He was right, but just barely.
Ridden for the first time by John Velazquez, Shackleford broke first in a six-horse field that included 8-5 favorite To Honor and Serve and Jackson Bend, a pair of Grade 1 winners. Entering the final turn, Shackleford was still in command, but Caleb's Posse, under Rajiv Maragh, began his patented come-from-behind move on the outside from about 10 lengths back.
With every long stride, Caleb's Posse moved closer to the lead, and pulled within inches of Shackleford at the finish. A photo confirmed Shackleford had won.
``He's gutsy as they come. Hopefully, he'll get the credit he deserves. He's a spectacular horse,'' said Romans. ``Winning this was our goal from the beginning of the year.''
Shackleford also earned an automatic berth into the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile in November - a race in which he finished second, four lengths behind Caleb's Posse.
To Honor and Serve was third, followed by Caixa Eletronica, Jackson Bend and Saginaw.
All along, Romans thought he had the winner.
``I thought coming off the turn he was going to be tough to get by,'' said Romans. ``When they hit the wire, I thought he won. Ten jumps out, I didn't know whether (Caleb's Posse's) momentum was going to carry him by us.''
Maragh thought he was going to catch Shackleford.
``It looked like I had him measured,'' he said. ``I was hoping I had him. It was just an unfortunate head bob. It's unfortunate to lose a race like this by such a short margin as good as he ran.''
On the undercard, It's Tricky won the $400,000 Ogden Phipps Handicap, and Contested won the $300,000 Acorn for 3-year-old fillies.
It's Tricky caught Cash for Clunkers in the stretch for a hard-fought, three-quarters of the length victory in the Grade 1 race for older fillies and mare.
Awesome Maria, sent off as the 3-4 favorite under Velazquez, could not mount a challenge in the stretch and finished third, ending the 5-year-old gray mare's six-race winning streak.
It's Tricky, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin and ridden by Eddie Castro, ran his record to 3-0 this year and his career mark to eight wins in 12 starts. Winning time for the 1 1-16 miles was 1:41.73. It's Tricky returned $6.20 for a $2 win bet.
Contested, with Javier Castellano aboard, was not tested at all in a wire-to-wire, five-length win over Zo Impressive. Trained by Bob Baffert, Contested extended her winning streak to four with in covering the one-mile Acorn in 1:34.61.
The even-money favorite in the field of six returned $4.10 for a $2 win bet.
Follow Richard Rosenblatt on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/rosenblattap