ELMONT, N.Y. - Unified did what he was expected to do Saturday -- win the Grade 2, $200,000 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park. The question now is did he do enough to convince his connections to take a swing in the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes in four weeks?
Showing the ability to sit off horses, Unified took a narrow advantage three furlongs from home, widened his lead in midstretch, and then had enough to hold off Governor Malibu and win the Peter Pan by three-quarters of a length.
The victory kept Unified unbeaten in three starts, adding the Peter Pan to the Grade 3 Bay Shore at Aqueduct and a maiden race at Gulfstream. Though the Peter Pan is the local prep for the Belmont Stakes, Jimmy Jerkens, Unified's trainer, wasn't enthusiastic about running 1-1/2 miles at this time. But he didn't rule it out.
"You got to be an idiot nowadays to rule anything out because things change overnight in this business with the horses," Jerkens said. "It's improbable but not impossible."
Obviously, the results of next Saturday's Preakness Stakes - where Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist will seek to make another step toward the Triple Crown -- will play a factor in that decision.
For now, Jerkens and the Centennial Farms syndicate that owns Unified will enjoy having a talented, undefeated horse.
Coming off two convincing victories to begin his career, Unified was a 1-2 favorite in the Peter Pan against a modest group. The biggest question was whether he would handle the 1-1/8-mile distance.
On paper, it looked like Unified, under Jose Ortiz, was the primary speed. But Manny Franco on Singleton seemed intent on being in front and he opened up a one-length lead after a quarter-mile in 23.32 seconds and a half-mile in 46.38. Initially second, Unified found himself third, but only a length off the lead as Super Czech came up along the inside of him, both stalking Singleton.
"It wasn't my plan A but it was my plan B," Ortiz said. "I saw [Singleton] sending. I got good position so I decided to rate him because I don't want [us] to kill each other."
Unified stayed three wide and in the clear and approaching the three-eighths pole he stuck his head in front after six furlongs in a sharp 1:10.25. Unified opened up a three-length advantage by mid-stretch and held Governor Malibu at bay.
Unified, a son of Candy Ride, covered the 1-1/8 miles in 1:47.14 and didn't let Governor Malibu by on the gallop-out. Unified returned $3.10 as the favorite.
"It looked like galloping out when that horse got up to him it looked like he took off again," Jerkens said.
Don Little, who heads the Centennial syndicate which won the Belmont with Colonial Affair and Lemon Drop Kid, said "everything's open" but he would let Jerkens and Steve Carr, the syndicate's racing manager, make the final decision.
"He's a talented horse. He always tries. I think he's got the competitive spirit you want to see in horses. He doesn't want to let them by," Little said.
Two years ago, Christophe Clement won the Peter Pan with Tonalist, who then went on win the Belmont when California Chrome was going for the Triple Crown. Clement trains Governor Malibu, a New York-bred son of Malibu Moon who ran a very good second to Unified.
Clement said he would wait a while before making a decision regarding the Belmont Stakes.
"I got to think about it, see how he comes out of it before I make a plan," Clement said. "Everything's wide open. I'm very happy. I just would have loved to have won the race."
Governor Malibu finished second by 2-1/2 lengths over Wild About Deb. He was followed, in order, by Adventist, Decorated Soldier, Singleton, Lost Iron, and Suph Czech.