The sign of a good horse is when they are taken out of their element and still find a way to win.United has turned into one of the nation’s top turf horses, and he proved it Saturday with a game victory in the $300,000 Grade II Charles Whittingham Stakes at Santa Anita.
Whittingham, who died at age 86 in 1999, was one of the greatest trainers ever, and he would have loved United’s performance. It was the type of victory that many of his top turf horses enjoyed during his heyday.
The 5-year-old gelded son of Giant’s Causeway, trained by Richard Mandella, is at his best when chasing horses and catching them in the final stages of a race. He used those tactics to almost catch last year’s Horse of the Year, Bricks and Mortar, in the final stages of the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita.
United had to settle for second place that day, and he went into the Whittingham off a second-place effort in the Grade II Hollywood Turf Cup at Del Mar on Dec. 1 and a victory in the Grade II San Marcos Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 1.
There was little speed in Saturday’s race, so Flavien Prat sat second with United for much of the 1 1/4-mile grass race, took the lead from pacesetter Synthesis at the head of the stretch and then had to dig in and hang on as even-money favorite Rockemperor and Originaire came charging home.
“It’s not the type of race that he likes,” Prat said. “He’s better when he has a few horses in front of him and a stronger pace. Those two horses (Rockemperor and Originaire) have a really good kick and it’s (taking the lead early in the stretch) not what United likes to do.
“He ran great today.”
United, who’s won five of 13 starts for earnings of $1,133,549, held on to win by a nose over Eastern shipper Rockemperor, who was disqualified and placed third for interference against the original third-place finisher, Originaire.
Prat looked to be in trouble at the sixteenth pole, but like most good horses, United dug in and won despite unfavorable tactics.
Four of United’s five victories have come since he turned 4, and he seems to be improving as he ages.
“I thought I was second,” Prat said. “On my way back, I looked at the tote board and there was an inquiry. I said, ‘What? I wasn’t involved in that.’ And then I realized I won. That was pretty cool. He was ready today.
“He’s getting better and better each race.”
Final time for the turf marathon was 2:00.34 after Synthesis set moderate fractions of 24.78, 48.88 and 1:12.74 before fading to last in the six-horse field.
United, the second choice in the wagering at 6-5, gave Mandella his second victory in the stake. He won with Sandpit in 1996 when it was the Hollywood Turf Handicap and run at Hollywood Park.
It was Prat’s first victory in the Whittingham. The 27-year-old Frenchman tripled on Saturday and has won five races during the first two days of Santa Anita’s holiday weekend of racing.
“With everything we’ve been through, this puts the icing on top of the cake as far as getting back to racing here at Santa Anita,” Mandella said. “Ever since the race was renamed for Charlie, I’ve wanted to win it. He was such a special man and he meant so much to our game.”
In the day’s supporting feature, the $100,000 Grade III Daytona Stakes, Wildman Jack, the 2-1 favorite, withstood an inquiry to beat 70-1 longshot Sparky Ville by a nose under Mike Smith for trainer Doug O’Neill.