Favored Sunriver needed the entire length of the Belmont Park homestretch in order to nab the game pacesetter Lewis Michael at the wire in Saturday's $200,000 Peter Pan (gr. II) for 3-year-olds.
Sunriver, who just missed qualifying for the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), got the job done under Rafael Bejarano at equal weights of 116 pounds with his eight rivals. At odds of 6-5, Sunriver was three wide and had four lengths to make up in the stretch after Lewis Michael and Mark Guidry had turned back all of the pace challengers to take a commanding lead in mid-stretch. Sunriver got up in the final couple of strides to win by a short neck in 1:49 1/5 for the 1 1/8-mile distance.
Todd Pletcher, whose horses had won a couple of stakes on the Preakness undercard earlier in the day, trains Sunriver, an Aaron and Marie Jones homebred son of Saint Ballado-Goulash (Mari's Book).
"Sunriver kept coming and finished up big," said Pletcher, who hopes to end an 0-for-4 skid in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) next month. "It looked like he still had something left at the end. Rafael kind of worked his way to the outside early to get a clear run."
The dark bay Sunriver notched his first graded stakes win after running third in the Florida Derby (gr. I), 3 1/2 lengths behind Barbaro, in his most recent try on April 1. His earnings from that race weren't enough to get Sunriver into the 20-horse Kentucky Derby, leaving him 21st on the list of those trying to get into the race. Pletcher opted for the Peter Pan over facing Barbaro again in the Preakness.
Bejarano settled into a tracking spot with Sunriver and edged off the rail near the rear of the pack as Lewis Michael, racing between Hesanoldsalt on the inside and Testimony on the outside, carved early fractions of :24 2/5 and :48. Lewis Michael dug in tenaciously as Strong Contender moved up on the outside to challenge. After Testimony and Hesanoldsalt gave up the chase on the turn, Lewis Michael found more, edging away from Strong Contender at the head of the stretch as Sunriver loomed up. Under strong right-handed urging, Sunriver closed the gap inside the eighth pole and got up just in time.
"I was a little worried down the backside; they were going as slow as they were," Pletcher said. "(Sunriver) is a pretty kind horse. You can do whatever you want with him. We'll talk to the Joneses about the Belmont; it's a possibility. I wouldn't rule High Cotton out of the Belmont, either."
Bejarano is certainly in favor of trying the Belmont Stakes, the 1 ½-mile "Test of the Champion," with Sunriver.
"He broke good, but I didn't have a good post position," Bejarano said. "I was trying to put him in the best spot I could. On the turn, I wanted to follow (Strong Contender). I knew this horse was going to run. At the quarter-pole, he switched his lead and I knew I had a lot of horse. This horse really finished strong. I think he could stretch out."
The long stretch run proved a bit too much for Lewis Michael, who has mostly raced on grass during his brief career for trainer Wayne Catalano, who said he was disappointed there wasn't more speed in the race.
"I wanted him to be sitting second or third. He got the fractions slowed down, he was comfortable and everything was going our way. The colt is learning how to run. We were trying to see if he is a dirt horse, and I think he answered that question today.
"The plan was that if he ran well here, he would run in the Belmont. We'll talk things over, and if he's going to run in the Belmont, he'll stay here."
Sunriver improved to 3-2-1 in seven starts with earnings of $281,400 after picking up the winner's share of $120,000 Saturday.
He paid $4.50, $3 and $2.30. Lewis Michael returned $8.30 and $4.70 while completing a $32 exacta. Strong Contender, the 2-1 second choice in the field of nine, tired late to finish 3 1/4 lengths behind the runner-up, paying $2.90 to show.
Then came Hesanoldsalt, Ice N Lemon, Harborage, Testimony, Really Indian and Scanlon's Song.