Will Stanford Be Defeated in the Charles Town Classic?

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Now that the Kentucky Derby prep races are over and the field for the "Run for the Roses" is coming into sharper focus, we can temporarily turn our attention to a different division of racing. Older males will get a chance to shine in the $1,250,000 Charles Town Classic (gr. II) on Saturday at Charles Town, and with established stars Arrogate and Shaman Ghost targeting other races, the Charles Town Classic has drawn an intriguing and competitive field of eight horses. Let's start handicapping!

Charles Town Classic (gr. II)

At first glance, it's hard to look past Stanford, who won this race last year by a decisive two lengths. Trained by Todd Pletcher, Stanford has been a talented and competitive stakes performer for two years and rarely runs a bad race. During his current campaign, he's won the Harlan's Holiday Stakes (gr. III) at Gulfstream Park by three lengths (defeating Keen Ice and Awesome Slew), finished second in the Poseidon Handicap at Gulfstream (beaten a head by Imperative), and romped to a track-record victory in the Challenger Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.

Still, when you dig deeper into Stanford's record, there are reasons to question his status as the Charles Town Classic favorite. He won last year's renewal in gate-to-wire fashion after setting slow fractions of :48.86 and 1:13.75, and in fact, almost all of Stanford's best races have come when he's secured the early lead and set a slow pace. When beaten to the lead, or forced to set a quicker pace, he hasn't been as effective.

This could prove problematic since the Charles Town Classic field contains a couple of other prominent front-runners, led by Matt King Coal. The four-year-old son of Cool Coal Man has set the pace in six of his eight races, including two victories at Laurel Park this winter, and figures to challenge Stanford for early control of the race.

Also expected to show speed is Cautious Giant, one of three runners owned by Loooch Racing Stables. Cautious Giant hasn't run in a route race since September 2015 and has been making a name for himself as a sprinter in California, where he counts third-place finishes in the Palos Verdes Stakes (gr. II) and Kona Gold Stakes (gr. II) among his best efforts. Although he generally comes from a few lengths off the pace when sprinting, Cautious Giant has enough speed to take the lead while stretching out in distance, and it would come as no surprise to see him serve as a pacemaker for his late-running stablemates War Story and Imperative.

It's also important to note that Stanford has drawn the rail, and in the previous eight editions of the Charles Town Classic, horses drawn in outside post positions have tended to dominate the race-in fact, the winners have started from post positions 7, 6, 7, 2, 6, 8, 9, and 3, with the second- and third-place finishers showing a similar bias toward outside draws. In fact, only one horse that started from the rail has finished in the trifecta, that being Dry Martini, who finished third in 2009.

For these reasons, I think Imperative might be the horse to play in the Charles Town Classic. We know he has no trouble handling the six-furlong "bullring" layout at Charles Town, as he won this race in 2014 and has finished second and fourth each of the last two years. We also know that on his best day he can defeat Stanford, as he did in the Poseidon Handicap in January.

Last time out, Imperative disappointed when finishing last of nine in the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I), but he reportedly lost both front shoes during the race, and Imperative has shown many times in the past that he's a rather inconsistent horse-his Poseidon victory followed a sixth-place finish by 13 lengths in the Native Diver Handicap (gr. III), and his win in the Big Bear Stakes last November came on the heels of a 22 ½-length loss in the Pacific Classic (gr. I).

Unlike last year's Charles Town Classic, which was lacking in early pace, Imperative should get an excellent setup this time around, giving him every opportunity to rally and win. He's drawn well in post position five and also picks up the services of top jockey Javier Castellano, who has won this race twice aboard Stanford and Caixa Eletronica.

The only reason I might hesitate to pick Imperative is if the track comes up wet, as Imperative has little experience on off going-his lone start on a wet main track was his sixth-place finish in the Native Diver, which was contested over a "good" track.

In the event that the track does come up wet, I would take a close look at Sunny Ridge. Don't let his 0-for-4 record on wet tracks fool you-Sunny Ridge has run exceptionally well on wet and sealed tracks, finishing second in the Champagne Stakes (gr. I), second in the Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (gr. III), and third in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I). Furthermore, the Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes was held over a six-furlong "bullring" track very similar to Charles Town, so there shouldn't be much concern about Sunny Ridge handling the track.

Best of all, Sunny Ridge is in career-best form, entering off of consecutive stakes victories over the Aqueduct inner track. In his most recent start, he rallied from mid-pack to win the 8.5-furlong Stymie Stakes by three-quarters of a length, defeating the talented Send It In (who finished third) by 1 ½ lengths while spotting him five pounds. Send It In came right back to win the Excelsior Handicap (gr. II) at Aqueduct with a massive 119 Beyer.

Drawing post two might be a minor concern, but being a mid-pack closer, Sunny Ridge should be able to work out a nice ground-saving trip behind Stanford, Matt King Coal, and Cautious Giant. From there, I think he'll put in a rally to be involved at the finish.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Charles Town Classic?



The Unlocking Winners Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge is back for a third consecutive year! Please be sure to post all entries, prime horses, and stable additions on the official contest page. Thanks, and enjoy the racing!


J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.

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