Art Collector
Art Collector and Luis Saez won the G2 Charles Town Classic. Photo by Allison Janezic.

In the days and eventually the last few minutes leading up to the 13th edition of the Grade II, $800,000 Charles Town Classic on Friday night, much of the attention rapidly shifted to Art Collector, the morning line favorite who was eventually made the 6-5 choice at post time, and defending Classic champion Sleepy Eyes Todd, who had embarked on a genuine world tour since winning the previous edition of the event one year earlier.

Not surprisingly, those two runners would eventually garner the attention of onlookers throughout the nine-furlong affair contested around three turns over the historic Jefferson County oval in what was virtually a match race for the final three furlongs.

Sleepy Eyes Todd had gained command soon after the break on a night when front-runners had owned a distinct advantage, but Art Collector refused to allow the defending champ to gain a genuine, comfortable advantage at any point.

Over a surface that had produced wicked fractions and fast final clockings, Sleepy Eyes Todd and Art Collector were hardly engaged in a spirited duel in their tour over the strip with the tandem setting modest fractions 23.80, 47.90 and 1:12.40 for the first three calls.

At the top of the lane, Art Collector collared the defending Classic champion and he edged clear in the final 100 yards to a 1 ½-length score while stopping the timer in 1:49.39 for the nine-furlong affair.

A four-year-old Bernardini colt trained by Hall of Fame conditioner Bill Mott, who made the trip down from New York for the race on the eve of Saturday’s Travers Day at Saratoga when he would saddle horses in three Grade I events, Art Collector notched his second straight stakes and now owns seven wins and roughly $1.3 million banked from 14 career tries for owner Bruce Lunsford.

He had previously captured the Grade 2 Blue Grass one year earlier along with two other minor stakes and now will be pointing toward the Grade 1 Woodward at Belmont Park, another nine-furlong event albeit around just one turn.

“I thought he was really coming into the race pretty well,” Mott said. “But you know there are never any easy spots to run a horse, especially going for this kind of money. I thought the defending champion [Sleepy Eyes Todd] was going to be tough. Even though they weren’t going fast fractions early, I thought Sleepy Eyes Todd was going to be tough to beat. The track had been playing like a conveyor belt all night with speed holding up, so I wasn’t sure until maybe the sixteenth pole that he was going by that other horse. We’ll go to the Woodward next and see how well he does cutting back from three turns to just one.”

Saez also noted that Art Collector was traveling easily through the modest early fractions and admitted he was confident his horse would overtake Sleepy Eyes Todd in the final furlong.

“I knew were weren’t going very fast early, but I didn’t want Sleepy Eyes Todd to get an easy lead,” Saez said. “I wanted to just stay right off of him until maybe the eighth pole, then at the sixteenth pole I knew I had him. That other horse didn’t give up, but my horse was going really good. When we hit the top of the stretch, I knew he was going by. I had to get after him a little bit, but that was because the horse inside me wasn’t going to give up.”

Art Collector won four of six starts at age three, including the Blue Grass and the Ellis Park Derby before running fourth in the Preakness Stakes and eighth in the Met Mile, which proved to be the final start of his sophomore campaign. He would return to finish sixth as the 6-5 choice in the Kellys Landing at Churchill Downs in June, but rebounded to take the Alydar Stakes at Saratoga as the 9-5 favorite in his previous outing while getting the nine furlongs in 1:48.20 with Saez aboard him for the first time.

“He ran well for me at Saratoga and I was looking forward to riding him back,” Saez said. “He’s got a lot of speed. I didn’t want to use him too much early tonight, but I knew I had to be close to the pace and I didn’t want to be too far off [Sleepy Eyes Todd].”

Sleepy Eyes Todd, who has literally traveled the globe since winning the 2020 edition of the Charles Town Classic, was a solid second in his title defense on Friday, while Rushie (Victor Espinoza) settled for third and Restrainedvengeance took fourth. Since taking the Classic last summer, Sleepy Eyes Todd had competed in four Grade I events, including the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park, the Saudi Cup and the Dubai World Cup during a busy three months to start this campaign. He had finished a dull third as the 2-5 favorite in a minor stakes at Fonner Park last out, but displayed plenty of speed and late grit while second to Art Collector in the Classic on Friday.

Although winless in five starts this year for trainer Miguel Angel Silva and Thumbs Up Racing (David Cobb), Sleepy Eyes Todd has earned over $1.3 million. In 20 lifetime tries, Sleepy Eyes Todd now sports an 8-3-1 slate and just over $2 million banked, roughly one-fourth of which he has earned in two consecutive appearances in the Charles Town Classic.