Grade 3 Gulfstream Park Sprint winner Unified will face the biggest test of his career in the 117th running of the Grade 1, $400,000 Carter Handicap for 4-year-olds and up at seven furlongs on Saturday at Aqueduct Racetrack.
A lightly raced 4-year-old colt by Candy Ride, Unified boasts four wins and $389,880 in earnings from just five starts. His most recent of which came in the Sprint February 25, his first start in more than eight months, where he handed defeat to Mind Your Biscuits, who came back to post an eye-popping victory in the Group 1 Golden Shaheen in Dubai the following month.
Unified flashed his class in his February 2016 unveiling for trainer Jimmy Jerkens, leading gate-to-wire under a pressured pace only to draw off by three lengths under the wire. He collected his first stakes win less than two months later, finishing with a three-length advantage over stakes winner King Kranz on a muddy and sealed track in the Grade 3 Bay Shore on the Wood Memorial undercard on April 9.
In his next start, the Centennial Farm color bearer tried his hand at a mile and an eighth around one turn on May 14 in the Grade 2 Peter Pan at Belmont Park, settling in third through the first half-mile before taking over in the backstretch to hold off a late charge from Governor Malibu.
Unified faltered in his only start that summer. Sent postward as the 3-10 favorite while trying two turns for the first time, Unified finished a dull fifth in the Grade 3 Pegasus at Monmouth Park, eventually leading his connections to close the door on his 3-year-old campaign.
"It was nothing in particular," Jerkens said. "He ran poorly [in the Pegasus], but he looked OK initially coming out of the race. Then when we got to Saratoga, he just looked like he didn't do good up there. He lost weight and he just wasn't surging into the bit like he was and was getting a little crampy in behind. We just stopped on him and gave him a little rest. He had done a lot in a short time and it looked like if we wanted to have an older horse, we should just pull the plug now and give him a good amount of time to get over everything and crank him back up."
Unified was back in top gear for his 4-year-old season opener, breaking second in the field of six for the Sprint and drew off along the rail under Jose Ortiz to hold by a neck over Mind Your Biscuits.
"He was good and fresh and strong and he was able to take [the training]," said Jerkens. "Usually sprinter-type horses come out running because they're usually willing workhorses in the morning. You can prepare them off a break. When he came up to it, we were confident he was going to run good.
"He was always a horse that carried good flesh until after the Monmouth race and he kind of fell away a little bit," he added. "But he got it back over the winter and he's held it pretty good. He hasn't missed a beat. You got to look at it positively, that's for sure."
Javier Castellano will take over the riding assignment from Ortiz, who has Saturday engagements at Keeneland. Favored at 7-5 on the morning line, the pair will break from post 8.
Leading the charge to take on Unified is the Todd Pletcher-trained Tommy Macho, cutting back to seven furlongs. A 5 ¾-length winner of the Grade 3 Hal Hope on January 14 at Gulfstream, the 5-year-old son of Macho Uno earned a career-high 105 Beyer Speed Figure for that effort, before following up with a third-place finish in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap February 11.
"I think he reacted a little bit [in the Gulfstream Handicap] off the huge race prior to that and he wasn't quite as sharp for the second one," said Pletcher. "So we've targeted this race since that one and hopefully he'll be sharp enough that the seven-eighths will be ok for him. I think he's probably his best at a one-turn mile but we thought this was a good alternative."
Installed as the 7-2 second choice on the morning line, Tommy Macho, owned by Paul Pompa, Jr. and J Stables, will break from post 2 with Luis Saez in the irons.
Green Gratto will bring his considerable experience into the Carter in search of his first Grade 1. A 7-year-old New Jersey-bred by Here's Zealous, Green Gratto will be making his 53rd career start. His eight lifetime victories include wins in the Grade 3 Toboggan on January 16 as well as the 2015 Grade 3 Fall Highweight.
Green Gratto, co-owned by trainer Gaston Grant with his brother Anthony, will depart from post 7 with Chris DeCarlo set to ride.
Veteran trainer Leon Blusiewicz will be represented by C. Peter Beler's homebred Spartiatis, riding a two-race win streak this year, capped by his first stakes victory in the Grade 3 Tom Fool Handicap. A 7-year-old gelding by Scat Daddy, Spartiatis will be ridden by Rajiv Maragh from post 6.
Rounding out the field for the Carter, carded as Race 9 with an approximate post time of 5:15 ET, are a pair of Rudy Rodriguez trainees in All Star Red, second in the Toboggan two starts back, and 2016 Toboggan winner Sassicaia, most recently fourth in the Tom Fool; Jacks or Better Farm's homebred Awesome Banner, who will add blinkers as he makes his first start for trainer Kenneth Decker; Zayat Stable's King Kranz, third in the Tom Fool, for John Terranova; and Stonestreet Stable's Ocean Knight, fourth in the Grade 3 General George last time out for the Kiaran McLaughlin barn.
Source: NYRA Communications