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belmont notebook

Wicked Strong ties for fourth with California Chrome

Palace Malice and rider John Velazquez wore their happy faces after winning the Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Palace Malice and rider John Velazquez wore their happy faces after winning the Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont.

NEW YORK — His official Triple Crown report card will show two starts and two fourth-place finishes, including a dead-heat effort with California Chrome in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. Not a bad showing from Wicked Strong.

Owned by Beverly-based Centennial Farms, Wicked Strong didn’t encounter the kind of traffic that dogged him in the Kentucky Derby, and a late close allowed him to chase down Chrome at the end to force a photo finish. It just wasn’t enough to get better than fourth.

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“From what I could see, I thought he was in a pretty good spot. He just didn’t have any real punch,” said Jimmy Jerkens, Wicked Strong’s trainer. “I thought it looked like he was starting to make a move, and somebody was right with him the entire way. He couldn’t shake loose, but he ran pretty good. He didn’t get beat far.”

Wicked Strong certainly had his share of backers leading up to the race; he was sent off at 5-1, the second choice behind California Chrome. The fact that he was just as good as the favorite, at least on this day, showed jockey Rajiv Maragh something.

“We had a fair shot at it, we just couldn’t quite get there. He kept on and never gave up. He tried his best,” Maragh said. “He sure belongs with these horses. He’s one of the top 3-year-olds.”

Don Little Jr., the president of Centennial Farms and one of 28 ownership shareholders in Wicked Strong, pledged to donate 5 percent of the horse’s Triple Crown winnings to the One Fund, since the horse’s name was inspired by the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. By earning $80,000 on Saturday, that’s another $4,000 for the One Fund.

‘Palace’ prevails

Palace Malice deserved to be the favorite in the 121st running of the Metropolitan Handicap, then went out and convincingly showed why.

As part of the undercard to the Belmont Stakes, the Met Cap featured a loaded field running for a loaded purse: $1.25 million, one of four races offering at least $1 million on Saturday, topped by the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes.

Palace Malice didn’t win the Triple Crown in 2013, but he did win last year’s Belmont, and was out a year later to add the Met Cap on the same track.

Palace Malice grabbed the lead on the backstretch and showed he was best in class, taking the 1-mile race as the 6-5 favorite. Goldencents, winner of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile, came in second, with Romansh finishing third.

“It’s pretty extraordinary to have a horse win the Belmont a year ago and come back and win the Met Mile from the No. 1 post carrying 124 pounds and beating last year’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner,” said Todd Pletcher, the trainer for Palace Malice. “It’s an unbelievable accomplishment.”

Palace Malice broke from the rail, but got away fairly cleanly and found a comfortable spot in which to bide his time. When jockey John Velazquez asked the 4-year-old to go near the top of the stretch, he went.

“Once he got through, he started running,” Velazquez said. “The room was there, but I kind of have to keep him busy, keep him busy.”

Pletcher has kept busy with Palace Malice, and has seen the horse work his way up the trainer’s personal rankings.

“He’s working his way right up to the top, that’s for sure. He can do so many different things effectively,” Pletcher said. “I was very, very concerned when he drew the No. 1 post. That can be difficult to overcome.”

Well received

Former Patriots receiver Wes Welker continues to have success at the track. He made news at the Kentucky Derby, betting the winner California Chrome, being mistakenly overpaid after a computer error at Churchill Downs, and gleefully handing out $100 bills to strangers left and right. On Saturday, in the Grade 3 Jaipur Invitational, a horse Welker owns — Undrafted, named for the fact that Welker was not selected in the NFL Draft — finished first.

Undrafted got bumped at the start, then made a charge at the top of the stretch, winning by 1½ lengths for his fourth career victory in 14 starts. Welker wasn’t expected to be in attendance. His horse won $165,000 from a $300,000 purse.

According to trainer Wesley Ward, the next race for Undrafted will be the Darley July Cup at Newmarket in Suffolk, England, July 12.

Second best

Social Inclusion originally had been entered in the Belmont after finishing third in the Preakness, but owner Ron Sanchez opted on Wednesday morning to pull him out of the big race and run him on the undercard in The Woody Stephens, a shorter race at 7 furlongs. Social Inclusion went off as the even-money favorite, but couldn’t catch winner Bayern, whose time of 1:20.75 nearly matched the 12-year track record of 1:20.17 at the distance.

Bayern also ran in the Preakness, but struggled getting out of the gate cleanly and finished ninth in a 10-horse field. This time, he won by 7 lengths.

“That was just a powerhouse performance,” said jockey Gary Stevens. “He made a perfect break, and when I asked him, he turned in what was an awesome performance. He really deserved that win.”

To make matters worse for Social Inclusion, he was edged out by Top Fortitude in a photo finish for second.

Close calls

The best pre-Belmont race might have been the 21st running of the Longines Just a Game, a 1-mile Grade 1 turf duel for fillies and mares at least 4 years old. Coffee Clique was in front down the stretch, with Strathnaver flying in from the outside and catching the leader as the finish line neared. Heads bobbing as they matched strides, Coffee Clique timed it right, crossing the line inches in front of Strathnaver, the victory confirmed by a photo finish. Other stakes winners included Sweet Reason, in the TVG Acorn, a 1-mile race for 3-year-old fillies; Close Hatches (by a nose over Princess of Sylmar) in the 46th Ogden Phipps, a race for fillies and mares; and Norumbega in the Brooklyn Invitational . . . Pardon the pun, but Five Iron came up short in the Knob Creek Manhattan . . . How much interest was there in this year’s Belmont? Fans who went to Penn Station Saturday morning to buy train tickets for the ride out to the track were met with a one-hour wait to make their purchase.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com.
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