CHARLES TOWN CLASSIC, OAKS TO SHARE CARD FOR FIRST TIME

Lady T N T
Jockey J. D. Acosta gives a fist pump as Lady T N T wins the 2019 G3 Charles Town Oaks. Photo by Coady Photography.

It’s fair to say that in 2020, just about everything in horse racing is an experiment.

What’s a Kentucky Derby without fans? Is the Preakness still the Middle Jewel if it comes last of the Triple Crown races? Heck, is a Triple Crown still a Triple Crown if the races take place over a four-month period?

Charles Town Races is conducting an experiment of its own this coming week. Necessity being the mother of invention, for the first time, the track’s signature event, the Grade 2 Charles Town Classic, will take place in late summer instead of its normal April slot. And – also for the first time – it will appear on the same card as the track’s other graded event, the Grade 3 Charles Town Oaks.

The two races anchor a card with seven total stakes that will kick off with a special post time – 5:00 p.m. – on Friday, August 28.

“The landscape of graded stakes around the country has changed dramatically,” Charles Town Vice President of Racing Operations Erich Zimny said Friday.

The Charles Town Classic’s April 18 date became a no-go when the track was forced to close in mid-March by the Covid-19 pandemic. It reopened in mid-May.

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Once it returned, the challenge became finding a spot to reschedule the Classic. When officials began considering a late August date, Zimny said, it didn’t seem to make sense to have the Classic and Oaks a couple of weeks apart. By combining them, he said the track hopes to create some synergy.

“Maybe if someone was bringing a horse for one race, they’ll bring one for the other race, too,” he pointed out.

An obvious question mark will be whether the simulcast audience finds the Charles Town races. They’re competing – for the first time – with racing from Saratoga and Del Mar.

But Zimny said he was optimistic.

“There’s going to be competition no matter when you schedule these races,” he said, pointing out that the Classic typically butts heads with the Keeneland spring meet. “The response has been pretty good. We’re expecting a very good and very deep card.”

Certainly, nominations to the stakes have been robust. The Classic and Oaks generated a combined total of 141 nominations. Each of the other three open stakes scheduled for the card – the $150,000 Dance to Bristol for older fillies and mares, the $100,000 Robert Hilton Memorial for three-year-olds, and the $100,000 Russell Road for three-year-olds and up – generated 45 or more nominations. The races will be drawn on Tuesday.

A half-dozen runners – including defending champ Runnin’toluvya, four-time participant War Story, and 2019 Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby winner Math Wizard – look pretty certain for the Classic, and others are possible.

Another challenge posed by the pandemic is that, because of quarantine rules, the jockeys on the grounds are pretty much the only ones available to ride. Would that scare off some trainers with high-end horses?

Zimny said that his team had done “our diligence beforehand.”

They liked the answer they heard. “There wasn’t anybody that said they wouldn’t participate,” he said.

Of course, the proof will be in the pudding. Big nominations numbers don’t always translate to big fields in the starting gate, and horsemen could always change their minds.

But if early indications hold – and the bettors show – this is one experiment that could work out just fine.

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