J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
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
Charles Town Classic (gr. II)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.