Contentious group to meet in Charles Town Classic
From a Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races release
In its first seven runnings, the Charles Town Classic has always seemed to draw a diverse set of competitors and this Saturday will be no exception as a full field of 10 horses exiting races in California, Louisiana, Florida, Maryland, Arkansas and West Virginia will enter the gate for the $1,250,000 Charles Town Classic (G2) at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races. The country’s co-richest race outside of the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup will be the marquee attraction on a 13 race card that includes 7 stakes and gets underway at 12:45 P.M. EST.
Having proven popular with horses coming out of the Santa Anita Handicap over the years, the 2016 renewal of the Charles Town Classic is no different with three horses shipping eastward from their respective Santa Anita bases.
Morning line favorite Donworth endured a rough trip as the 2.50-to-1 second choice in the Big Cap and could do no better than seventh in his second start for trainer Doug O’Neill. Purchased for $550,000 at Keeneland’s 2015 November breeding stock sale, the dark bay son of Tiznow was in the care of trainer Graham Motion in 2015 where he won twice in four starts, including a second in the Lexington (G3) in just his second career outing.
In his first effort for O’Neill, Donworth finished a close up third in the San Antonio (G2) behind Hoppertunity and fellow Charles Town Classic starter Imperative. However, in the Santa Anita Handicap, Donworth found himself keen to run on while in behind horses and stumbled badly after clipping heels with eventual winner Melatonin on the far turn. O’Neill believes that you’ll see a different style employed by Donworth in the Charles Town Classic around a track that fits his horse well.
“Donworth is going to be free running early,” said the trainer of 2012 Kentucky Derby victor I’ll Have Another. “And he should love the tighter turns.”
Mario Gutierrez, who will team up with owner J. Paul Reddam and O’Neill in two weeks with probable Kentucky Derby favorite Nyquist, once again has the call on the lukewarm 3-to-1 morning line favorite Donworth who will leave from post 4.
Back in April 2014, KM Racing Enterprise and J K Racing’s Imperative shocked Charles Town Classic favorite Game on Dude and posted the biggest upset in the race’s brief history when his win returned $55 for every $2 wagered. However, the gelded son of Bernardini, now trained by Richard Baltas, has hit the skids since his breakthrough win, dropping 15 straight including a runner-up finish in last year’s Charles Town Classic.
However, winless doesn’t equate to a lack of financial success for Imperative who has racked up nearly $750,000 in earnings over that time span. Baltas hopes a return trip to Charles Town where his horse has thrived will be enough to get him over the hump.
“I don’t know if it’s the turns or maybe it’s the surface, but he sure does seem to like it there,” said the California-based Baltas. “He doesn’t like the track really hard. The horse is doing great, and it looks like the Big Cap is coming up strong. He jogged Tuesday and [Wednesday], then will probably gallop Thursday and Friday.”
Another factor that gives Imperative’s conditioner confidence is having secured the services of Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith, who leads all jockeys in career Charles Town Classic earnings. Imperative was beaten a nose by Hoppertunity in the San Antonio the last time Smith was in the saddle.
“Mike [Smith] knows the horse. He’s been on him before and has been working him here in California before he left. He’s not an easy horse to ride. You have to know when to time his move. So Mike’s not going to move too early.”
Imperative breaks from post 5 in his bid to become just the second horse to win two Charles Town Classics.
The late running Hard Aces padded his bankroll with a second place effort in the Santa Anita Handicap and ships to West Virginia for owners Hronis Racing LLC and trainer John Sadler.
Much like fellow California invader Imperative, Hard Aces has been knocking heads with some of the country’s best and it only takes looking at the winners of the races he’s competing in – American Pharoah, Shared Belief, California Chrome and Beholder to name a few – to recognize that. And while he’s been collecting a few hearty paychecks, the six-year-old has only one win in his last ten outings to show for it with that being the first Grade 1 score of his career when he took the 2015 Gold Cup at Santa Anita by a nose over Hoppertunity. A finish of second or better on Saturday would make Hard Aces racing’s newest millionaire.
Sadler, who will be making his second start in the Charles Town Classic after sending out Zappa in the first edition back in 2009 has again enlisted jockey Abel Lezcano to ride on Saturday.
On the Arkansas Derby undercard, the result of the Big Cap was flattered when runners exiting the race occupied the top three spots in the Oaklawn Handicap (G2). While the Santa Anita Handicap looked the part of a key race in the handicap division this past weekend, it wasn’t alone in that regard as the New Orleans Handicap (G2) result was flattered when Eagle – fourth under the wire and placed third in the New Orleans Handicap when Jessica’s Star was disqualified and placed fifth – came back to win the Ben Ali (G3) at Keeneland over the likes of Grade 1 winner Noble Bird and General a Rod.
Now, the top two finishers in the New Orleans Handicap, winner S’maverlous and eventual runner-up International Star – both from the barn of trainer Mike Maker – will take aim at the top prize at Charles Town come Saturday.
Claimed for $32,000 in September 2015 for new owner Gata Racing Stable, S’maverlous has proved a solid investment with three wins for his new connections including his breakthrough at Fairgrounds in his first try in stakes company.
In his first start for his new barn, S’maverlous closed from twelfth to win a Belmont Park allowance race but has also shown the ability to stay in close attendance to the pace in his route races, much like he did in the New Orleans Handicap when he stalked front runner Coup de Grace before pulling away for a two-length victory.
“He’s a versatile horse,” explained Maker, who was the top trainer in the 2015 Penn Gaming Racing Challenge. “It looks like the pace could be pretty lively, so we’ll tell Jose [Lezcano] to let him break and let him take him where he wants to be.”
After sweeping the three graded Kentucky Derby preps held at the Fairgrounds in 2015 – including the Louisiana Derby (G2) – International Star looked to be a strong contender to grab the roses at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. However, the son of 2000 Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus was scratched the morning of the Derby with foot issues and wasn’t seen again until late November’s Zia Park Derby.
In his first start as a four-year-old, International Star won the Louisiana Stakes over the aforementioned Eagle prior to dropping his last two races. Unlike with his stablemate, the tactics International Star will likely employ appear to be much more obvious as his best races have come from well off the pace – a fact that Maker thinks may play into his hands on Saturday, especially when coupled with where he’s been doing his recent training.
“International Star likes to close, so it could set up well for him, too. He trains on a three-quarter of a mile track at the Thoroughbred Training Center, so there should be no problem with the track.”
While Lezcano will ride S’maverlous back, the red hot Jose Ortiz – winner of last year’s Charles Town Oaks on Hot City Girl – has the call on International Star for the first time.
Todd Pletcher is certainly not a stranger to competing in 7-figure races and will attempt to annex a second Charles Town Classic trophy to his collection when he sends out Stanford, owned in partnership by Stonestreet Sables, Susan Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith. Pletcher had previously won the Charles Town Classic back in 2012 with Caixa Eletronica.
Most recently second behind Blofeld in the Gulfstream Park Handicap (G2) in early March, Stanford has never been short on talent as he displayed in last year’s Louisiana Derby when he yielded late to lose a decision to International Star by just a neck.
Stanford has shown some versatility over his career, a fact that led Pletcher to send the four-year-old son of Malibu Moon to contest the Charles Town Classic.
“Stanford has been training very well,” according to Pletcher. “We feel like with his tactical style, he should fit the Charles Town track.”
Javier Castellano, who teamed up with Pletcher to claim the 2012 Classic, will be in to ride Stanford who breaks from post 7.
Should there be a rooting allegiance among members of the Mid-Atlantic racing scene, that honor could fall to the popular six-year-old gelding Page McKenney who looks to improve on his third place effort in last year’s Charles Town Classic.
Trained by Mary Eppler, Page McKenney comes into this year’s Charles Town Classic sporting a four race winning streak with wins at four different distances, including his first graded stakes triumph in February’s General George (G3) at Laurel Park.
So consistent is Page McKenney that he’s gone 23 consecutive starts without finishing worse than third – a stat made more impressive by virtue of the Pennsylvania bred making starts at 7 different tracks, at 6 different distances and on 2 different surfaces over that span. However, despite Page McKenney’s ability to take his race with him wherever he goes, his trainer believes her stable star’s familiarity with Charles Town may suit him well.
“He’s coming into the race super,” indicated Eppler who looks to add a fifth graded stakes win to her resume. “There will only be two horses in the race that have run over the track, so that will be a plus for us. Last year was the first time Horacio Karamanos had ridden over the track, so that experience will help, too.”
The Charles Town Classic will mark the thirteenth straight race where Page McKenney will have Karamanos aboard as he seeks to notch the biggest victory of his career.
While Page McKenney has become a popular horse within the region, the allegiance of West Virginia bred supporters will unquestionably be in the corner of defending West Virginia Breeders’ Classic winner Charitable Annuity, who is in search of his first victory of 2016 after rattling off 4 straight wins to close out 2015.
One of those wins came in the $500,000 West Virginia Breeders’ Classic at the same 1 1/8 mile distance Charitable Annuity will face Saturday.
“This horse wants a route of ground and has proven that to be true over his career,” says Charitable Annuity’s owner Mark Russell. “We’ve given him some prep races this year and we still think the route of ground is what our horse wants.”
The four-year-old gelding’s record seems to back up his owner’s belief as the earner of more than $360,000 is a perfect 2-for-2 going farther than a mile, with his other win coming in the restricted A Huevo Stakes in his final start of 2015.
While Russell doesn’t discount his chances should a hot pace develop, he remains excited to see his horse saddled up in a paddock he’s stepped foot in many times.
“We’re looking forward to walking out of our barn and up to the track to participate in the biggest race here this year. So, we really just want to be a part of it. The other half of it is that we’re all kind of dreamers and this is a pretty big one for us so if we can attempt to participate, we definitely want to try it.”
Charitable Annuity’s regular rider, Antonio Lopez, again has the call for Russell and trainer James W. Casey.
While not walking up from his barn, another horse making a short van ride over from Maryland is D Hatman Thoroughbreds’ Sonny Inspired, who will try farther than 7 furlongs for the first time since a ninth place effort in a one mile allowance race on the Pimlico turf back in June 2014.
Trained by Phil Schoenthal, who sent out Miss Behaviour to a win in the 2014 Charles Town Oaks, Sonny Inspired had found the most success in the allowance ranks prior to this year, but comes into the Charles Town Classic in career form off victories in the Fire Plug and Ben’s Cat at Laurel as well as a third in the General George (G3) where he finished behind Page McKenney.
While acknowledging the 1 1/8 mile distance of the Charles Town Classic might be a question mark, Schoenthal believes the setup of the Charles Town oval may give Sonny Inspired the best chance to answer the question in the affirmative.
“I think he has a better shot at getting 9 furlongs at Charles Town than he does on a traditional oval,” says Schoenthal. “I think there is no guarantee any of the favorites besides maybe Imperative will like the configuration, so you have to be in it to win it.”
And while some might presume the stretch out from the sprint distances he’s been competing at would lend itself to seeing Sonny Inspired on or near the lead, his trainer doesn’t necessarily think that’s the best tact come Saturday.
“I think our best hope is to take back and relax early and try and pass some tiring horses late rather than gun towards the front and be one of those tiring horses.”
Jevian Toledo will ride Sonny Inspired.
The final horse in the body of the Charles Town Classic will be sent out by trainer Otabek Umarov, in the form of La Macchina, who won the listed Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park earlier this year.
Claimed from Maker in November, La Macchina made his first start for Umarov a winning one and followed that up with his upset in the Essex. Most recently, La Macchina finished sixth – beaten just two lengths – in the Grade 3 Razorback at Oaklawn.
Channing Hill has the call on La Macchina who breaks from post 8.
Umarov also trains Incremental, the only horse on the also eligible list for the Charles Town Classic, who would need an unexpected defection from the race to draw into the field. Umarov had also hoped to run Looks to Spare in the Charles Town Classic until the third place finisher in the 2015 Clark Handicap (G1) developed a fever while shipping up from Arkansas.
The Charles Town Classic is the final race in a $100,000 guaranteed all-stakes Pick 4 which commences in Race 9. Post time for the Charles Town Classic is scheduled for 6:05 P.M. EST.