OZONE PARK, N.Y. – With an aggressive move at the five-sixteenths pole off the rail and to the outside, jockey Corey Nakatani positioned Jackson Bend for an epic confrontation with front-running Shackleford in the Grade 1, $400,000 Carter Handicap. After matching strides to the top of the stretch, Jackson Bend finally willed his way to the lead only to have 2011 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Caleb’s Posse close in on him with every stride.

At the wire, Jackson Bend remained in front, by a nose, to win an electrifying 112th edition of the Carter on Saturday at Aqueduct Racetrack.

The five-horse field assembled the cream of the middle-distance runners in the country, and the matchup more than lived up to its billing. The 5-year-old Jackson Bend, owned by Robert LaPenta and trained by Hall of Famer Nick Zito, won the Carter, one of the prized sprints in racing, in 1:22.32 for seven furlongs.

Shackleford, the 2011 Preakness winner, finished 1 ½ lengths behind Caleb’s Posse in third, followed by Emcee and Tahitian Warrior.

Calibrachoa was scratched.

While the Carter didn’t definitively settle who the best middle-distance runner in the country is, it showed Jackson Bend is an ace at seven furlongs, running his record to a perfect 4-for-4 at the distance.

“The way he was moving, I felt I’d get next to Shackleford, let Shackleford do a little of the dirty work and go …,” said Nakatani, who won four races on the Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial card. “…once I got around the turn, I was going to see where I was at. When Caleb’s Posse started coming at me … this horse has so much heart. It brings a tear to my eye. He’s Mighty Mouse. He’s so little, 15 hands, but he’s got so much heart.”

Zito said he, too, teared up watching the race.

“That was some thrill, I’ll tell you,” he said. “It’s amazing, this business. You know, as a groom, I grew up around here, and I watched [the race] from right over there, where I used to watch it when I rubbed horses. I put my foot under a lucky spot from when I used to rub horses. It’s just a great feeling.”

The Carter presented a fascinating handicapping puzzle, and the lightly campaigned but torridly fast Emcee figured to make the pace.

When the gate opened, however, Emcee lost his footing and came out behind the field, immediately changing the expected race dynamics.

Shackleford, expected to stalk Emcee by trainer Dale Romans, found himself on the lead, and he danced out 1 ½ lengths in front through an opening quarter-mile in 23.67 seconds. A half-mile in, Emcee had rushed up from the rear to push the pace, and Jackson Bend was soon making his move.

As they battled through the turn, Caleb’s Posse, in his second start of the year after a second in the Grade 3 Tom Fool on March 3, sat reserved off the pace, in the two-path under jockey Rajiv Maragh.

“I was close, sitting easy,” Maragh said, “but there was no speed, though. [Emcee] was two, three lengths off the lead, and I was like, ‘What?’ At the eighth pole, I thought I was going to be able to get by [Jackson Bend] because I kind of drew on even terms, but I drew even on a fresh horse, so it was really hard to get by him.”

Zito said that as the horses came through the stretch, “I basically said, ‘It’s your race to win now, Jack.’”

The first-place purse of $240,000 pushed Jackson Bend’s lifetime earnings to $1,580,950. He has now won nine of 25 starts.

After the race, the top three trainers appeared all set to mix it up again May 28 in the one-mile, Grade 1, $750,000 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park.

“Most likely the Met Mile,” Caleb’s Posse’s trainer Donnie Von Hemel said.

“Absolutely,” Zito said.

“It looked like he was back on his game to me,” Romans said, signaling his readiness to see it all again.