October 3, 2023

United, Wildman Jack prevail in turf thrillers at Santa Anita

United (right) winning the Charles Whittingham © BENOIT PHOTO

Saturday’s graded turf stakes at Santa Anita featured different pace dynamics befitting a sprint and a 1 1/4-mile test. But both the $101,000 Daytona (G3) and $200,500 Charles Whittingham (G2) culminated in similar ways – with razor-thin photos and stewards’ inquiries into messy stretch runs.

While 2.10-1 Daytona favorite Wildman Jack survived the stewards’ review to keep his trophy, Whittingham hero United was not implicated in the fracas in his race. Instead, it was the near-miss runner-up Rockemperor who was demoted to third for mugging Originaire twice.

Another common thread was the itinerary of the winners. Both United and Wildman Jack were racing for the first time since their sojourn in Dubai, where they were targeting appropriate races on the ultimately scrapped World Cup card.

LNJ Foxwoods’ United had traveled for the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1) at about 1 1/2 miles, but reverted in trip here. Runner-up in the 2019 Whittingham in his stakes debut, the late-developing 5-year-old has come a long way in the interim for Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella.

Leading rider Flavien Prat helped by putting the sometimes dour United in the ideal position. Tracking 70-1 pacesetter Synthesis through steady fractions of :24.78, :48.88, and 1:12.74, United took over on the far turn and lumbered ahead passing the mile in 1:36.97.

But the 11-10 Rockemperor, who just shaded the 6-5 United for favoritism, was kicking into gear from a few lengths back. The problem was that the Chad Brown invader didn’t stay straight as he launched his rally. Lugging in beneath Irad Ortiz, he swiped Originaire who was himself improving into contention. Although Originaire’s hindquarters were pushed out, the 6-1 chance shrugged it off and kept fighting doggedly between United and Rockemperor.

As Rockemperor appeared poised to overtake them with a superior turn of foot, the gritty United proved tough to pass, and neither would Originaire go away. Then Rockemperor came in again, bumping Originaire for the second time, and made a final lunge at the wire.

United had his bigger head down in the bobbing finish, and the camera revealed that the Giant’s Causeway gelding nipped Rockemperor in 2:00.34. Had the photo gone the other way, Rockemperor wouldn’t have kept it anyway.

Originaire was just a half-length back in third after being hampered, and the stewards took a dim view of Rockemperor’s dual infractions. In a unanimous ruling, Rockemperor was disqualified and placed third behind Originaire.

Desert Stone motored from last to grab fourth, just a neck off Originaire. Next came Multiplier and the tailed-off Synthesis. Bold Endeavour scratched.

Prat didn’t sense that United had won the photo.

“I thought I was second,” Prat said. “On my way back I looked at the tote board and there was an inquiry between (Originaire and Rockemperor).  I said ‘What, I wasn’t involved in that.’  And (then) I realized I won. That was pretty cool.

“He was ready today, but this is not the type of race that he likes. He’s better when he has a few horses in front of him and a stronger pace. Those two horses had a better kick. That is not what United likes to do, but he ran great today. He’s getting better and better with each race. I think he’s still improving every race. He’s very cool to be around; he always gives a lot.”

United, who nearly upset Horse of the Year Bricks and Mortar in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), has now won two straight at this course and distance. The Feb. 1 San Marcos (G2) marked his stakes breakthrough. Previously placed in the John Henry Turf Championship (G2) and Hollywood Turf Cup (G2), the chestnut has compiled a record of 13-5-3-1, $1,133,549.

Mandella noted the significance of winning the race honoring Whittingham.

“Ever since the race was renamed for Charlie, I’ve really wanted to win it,” said Mandella, whose lone win came in its former incarnation, the Hollywood Turf H. (G1), with Sandpit (1996).

“He was such a special man and he meant so much to our game. I’ve had a few seconds, but to win it today really means a lot.”

Wildman Jack denies Sparky Ville (inside) in a Daytona squeaker © BENOIT PHOTO

Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith expressed a similar sentiment after taking the Daytona aboard Wildman Jack, mentioning that he’d ridden the race’s namesake, Daytona.

“I’d like to thank all the connections, the owners (W.C. Racing) and (trainer) Doug (O’Neill) who put me on Wildman Jack to win the Daytona S. I used to ride (Daytona) so that makes it a little bit more special.”

Although a different type from United, Wildman Jack has likewise improved with maturity and entered on the upswing. The homebred son of Goldencents was part of O’Neill’s successful satellite operation at Meydan, becoming a Dubai Carnival revelation when dominating the about 6-furlong Nad al Sheba Turf Sprint (G3) in a course-record 1:07.61. That made him a key contender for the Al Quoz Sprint (G1) until the cancellation.

Wildman Jack nearly equaled Santa Anita’s 5 1/2-furlong course record in the Daytona. As 70-1 shot Sparky Ville dueled with and ultimately bested Cistron through splits of :21.07 and :43.54, Wildman Jack was chasing but appearing outpaced. Down the stretch, though, the favorite stayed on well and began to reel in upset-minded Sparky Ville.

At the same time, his O’Neill stablemate Stubbins was trying to get through between Sparky Ville and Cistron. Wildman Jack’s momentum carried him in just as Sparky Ville came out a tad, and Cistron and Stubbins were caught in the middle. Stubbins altered course to the inside to get up for third while Cistron dropped back to fifth, passed late by Texas Wedge. The last two home, Murad Khan (another O’Neill) and Blameitonthelaw, held the same spots throughout.

After Wildman Jack squeaked in on the head-bob from Sparky Ville, the stewards conducted an inquiry but let the original order stand.

“The inquiry was that the two (Stubbins) was trying to squeeze in between the one (Sparky Ville) myself and the five (Cistron) all at once,” Smith recapped. “We were all pretty tight in there. I did a pretty conscious job of keeping him straight and then (Sparky Ville) started to drift out a little bit and made it worse. Fortunate for us he was able to stay up and he ran extremely well.”

Wildman Jack’s final time of 1:01.01 was an eyelash off Jolie Olimpica’s 1:01.00 course record.

“He came back from Dubai in perfect shape and he continued to train well,” O’Neill said. “This race came up tough, like a Breeders’ Cup race. It’s nice to have Big Money Mike, I can tell you that. Midway through the race, it looked like maybe we were dropping out of it, but he still had horse.

“I know this is a big win for Glenn Sorgenstein, he owns the horse and he bred him. This is huge.”

Sorgenstein’s W.C. Racing also campaigned successful young sire Goldencents. From his first crop, the 4-year-old Wildman Jack sports a mark of 8-4-2-1, $373,630, after winning both of his stakes appearances so far.