A field of eight older runners has been entered to go 1 1/8 miles on Saturday in the $1.25 million Charles Town Classic (G2).
Defending champion Stanford has finished first or second in eight of his last 10 starts, including a two-length victory in this contest a year ago. The bay son of Malibu Moon closed out 2016 with a three-length wire job in the Harlan’s Holiday Stakes (G3) and just missed by a head to the re-opposing Imperative to open his five-year-old campaign on January 28.
Stanford returned last out for another wire job, this time by 3 1/4 lengths in the Challenger Stakes while sporting blinkers for the first time.
“The main objective with putting the blinkers on was keeping him focused throughout the race,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “He lost his focus a couple of times, and both times we think it cost him the race.
“Sometimes it can be difficult to make an equipment change on a horse you’ve had so much success with, but it had been in the back of my mind to try it with him. The Charles Town Classic has been our early season objective, and we liked the position of the Challenger as a prep. So we thought that would be a good opportunity to try them out, and it worked out well. He maintained his focus, was into the race, but wasn’t rank, and the results showed.”
John Velazquez has been aboard Stanford for his past three starts and retains the mount here.
Like Stanford, Imperative is seeking a second win in the Charles Town Classic. The Bernardini gelding will be making just his third start for new trainer Bob Hess Jr. in this spot after being conditioned by Eoin Harty, George Papaprodromou and finally Richard Baltas. It was while under Papaprodromou’s tutelage that he won the 2014 Charles Town Classic. He returned to finish second in 2015 and fourth in 2016.
Imperative tried the Santa Anita Handicap (G1) following his season-opening win in the Poseidon, but was a well-beaten last of nine that day. The seven-year-old gets a jockey switch to Javier Castellano while looking for yet another upset.
“He loves the track configuration at Charles Town,” Hess said. “I think he loves that surface being a little kinder. He lost a shoe in the Big ‘Cap, and not saying he would have won, but his feet are just a little delicate so that’s what really hurt him in there.
“He’s put some weight back on that he lost after the Poseidon. He’s been training on the synthetic training track at Keeneland, and working over the main. Javier (Castellano) worked him the other day and he’s really happy with how’s he’s doing.
“The horse is quirky, and he and Javy seem to have really clicked in the morning, so we’ll leave it up to the two experts. But Javy certainly knows the track well there and that’s a plus,” Hess added.
Grade 3 hero Sunny Ridge will attempt to keep his 2017 mark perfect while making his third start of the year in the Charles Town Classic. The Jason Servis pupil captured the Jazil Stakes and Stymie Stakes over Aqueduct’s inner surface with returning pilot Manuel Franco, and will go for the stakes hat trick here.
“He’s doing really well. He paired a couple of wins up in New York and showed he was back on his game,” Servis said.
“The big thing for us was how well he ran (when a neck second in the 2015 Delta Downs Jackpot [G3]) at Delta (Downs) so we know he will handle the (six-furlong) track (at Charles Town) just fine.”
Loooch Racing and principle Ron Paolucci will send out three runners in the Charles Town Classic, including Imperative, either in partnership or solo ownership. The other two are multiple Grade 2-placed stakes winner War Story and dual Grade 2-placed Cautious Giant.
Tyler Gaffalione will ride War Story while Jacob Radosevich has the call on Cautious Giant.
Completing the Charles Town Classic field are Grade 3-placed multiple stakes victor Bodhisattva, last-out Harrison E. Johnson Memorial scorer Matt King Coal and Gangster.