After Blended Citizen ran fifth in the Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, he ranked 25th according to the points system established by Churchill Downs to determine the 20 starters for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.
Then a couple of horses ranked ahead of the son of Proud Citizen dropped out of consideration, prompting owner Greg Hall and those associated with Say Jay Racing to develop a serious case of Derby fever.
Alas, Blended Citizen did not make the cut. Brooke Hubbard, racing manager for Say Jay Racing, described that development as “definitely crushing.”
Racing often is about regrouping in the best possible fashion, and the connections certainly did that in this case. Blended Citizen got a perfect trip from Kyle Frey and rallied to win the Grade 3, $350,000 Peter Pan Stakes by 1 ½ lengths against favored Core Beliefs on Saturday at Belmont Park.
No wait will be required to determine the 3-year-old’s next target. Trainer Doug O’Neill, based on the West Coast, will keep him in New York to contest the Belmont Stakes on June 9.
“We wish Justify the best and hope he’ll win the Preakness for a chance at the Triple Crown on the line,” said Jack Sisterson, an assistant to O’Neill. “But we like our chances, and he’ll stay here and train up to it.”
Sisterson viewed it as something positive that Blended Citizen even sniffed the Derby.
“We were honored to be in the limelight just a little bit,” he said. “We wished all 20 owners the best of luck as soon as we didn’t get in. It wasn’t our day, so we pointed to the Peter Pan.”
The 1 1/8-mile Peter Pan could not have turned out better. Tyler Baze gunned Core Beliefs to the lead from the rail, but he had plenty of company in his attempt to set the pace for the six-horse field. Just Whistle and Joel Rosario succeeded in snatching the lead from them, with Gotta Go and High North also on the engine.
Core Beliefs, third in the Santa Anita Derby behind Justify and Bolt d’Oro, was essentially doomed from the beginning.
“He bobbled a little bit at the start and then they were on me the whole way,” said Peter Eurton, trainer of the runner-up. “It’s a tough spot to be in, but he ran well. He’s getting better with each and every race.”
Frey bided his time in fifth place through an opening half-mile that went in 47.07 seconds. He made a six-wide move as Blended Citizen found his best gear and ran down Core Beliefs in a time of 1:49.75. Just Whistle weakened late to be third.
Blended Citizen paid $11.40, $4.40 and $2.60. It was exactly the way Sisterson thought it might unfold.
“We led him over here with a lot of confidence,” he said. “He’s such a big horse with a big stride. We thought if he’s going to love any track in America, it’s going to be Belmont Park. So we weren’t surprised with the result today.”
Blended Citizen won for the third time in 10 career starts, but his previous successes had come when he broke his maiden on the turf last November at Del Mar in his fifth career outing and when he took the Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks on March 17 on Turfway Park’s synthetic surface.
Sisterson knows Blended Citizen must take a huge step up in class in the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes. He takes some consolation in knowing the distance will not be an issue.
“The further the better,” he said. “We’d like it to be two miles.”