ARCADIA, Calif. – In a thrilling East vs. West finish that would have delighted the race’s namesake, Richard Mandella’s United dug deep and found more late to hold off favored Eastern invader Rockemperor by a nose in Saturday’s Grade II, $200,000 Charles Whittingham Stakes at Santa Anita. Ridden by Flavien Prat, United, a 5-year-old gelding by Giant’s Causeway, got a mile and one quarter on turf in 2:00.34. Fractions on the race were 24.78, 48.88, 1:12.74 and 1:36.97.
Breaking from the lower portion of the hillside turf course, longshot Synthesis went to the lead as expected and United tracked him in second while comfortably in-hand to the quarter pole. From there, Prat stepped on the gas but it seemed United may’ve had made the lead too early, as Originaire and Rockemperor came at him with furious rallies a furlong from home, but United somehow found more when it counted.
“I thought I was second,” said Prat. “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, 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….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.”
Idle since winning the Grade II San Marcos Stakes under the same conditions here Feb. 1, United was off as the narrow second choice at 6-5 and paid $4.40, $2.80 and $2.10.
Owned by LNJ Foxwoods, United, who is out of the Pulling Punches mare Indy Punch, notched his second graded stakes and improved his overall record to 13-5-3-1. With the winner’s share of $120,000, his earnings increased to $1,133,549.
“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,” said Mandella. “Ever since the race was renamed for Charlie, I’ve wanted to win it. He was such as special man and he meant so much to our game. I’ve had a few seconds, but to win today really means a lot.”
Was he concerned United may’ve made the lead too early? “I was. I’ve seen him do this before and he puts his ears up and waits on horses. It took him a little while to feel those horses coming to him, but when he did, he dug in.”
Although even money favorite Rockemperor, who shipped in from Florida for trainer Chad Brown and was ridden by eastern-based Irad Ortiz, Jr., finished second by a half length over Originaire, he was disqualified for interference late and place third.
Irish-bred Originaire, trained by Jeff Mullins and ridden by Umberto Rispoli, paid $4.80 and $2.60.
Rockemperor paid $2.20 to show while Desert Stone, who flew late at 15-1 under Abel Cedillo, had to settle for fourth, about three quarters of a length off the winner.
Named for the legendary Hall of Fame trainer, Charlie Whittingham was a beloved fixture on the American Turf scene who had a whimsical, self-effacing manor that endeared him to all. Santa Anita’s all time leading stakes winning trainer with 204 added money wins at the time of his death at age 86 on April 20, 1999, “The Bald Eagle” won the race originally known as the Hollywood Turf Handicap a record seven times at Hollywood Park from 1970 through 1987.
Photo: United. Credit: Santa Anita