Based on his victory in last year’s Charles Town Classic (G2) and an impressive last-out win, Stanford seems a likely favorite for the $1.25 million race for older horses coming up April 22.
The 5-year-old son of Malibu Moon —Rosy Humor, by Distorted Humor , races for Barbara Banke’s Stonestreet Stables, along with the Coolmore triumvirate of Susan Magnier, Michael Tabor, and Derrick Smith.
Trained by Todd Pletcher, Stanford took a slightly different route to West Virginia’s eastern panhandle for his title defense than he took in 2016. Last year, the WinStar-bred horse came into the Charles Town Classic off of consecutive runner-up efforts at Gulfstream Park in the Gulfstream Park Handicap (G2) and Fred Hooper Stakes (G3)—both one-turn events. This year Stanford comes into the three-turn Charles Town Classic off three consecutive two-turn races in Florida.
After a six-month break following last summer’s Metropolitan Handicap (G1), Stanford led every step of the way to win the Harlan’s Holiday Stakes (G3) and came up a head short against Imperative—a horse he’ll meet again this time out—in the $400,000 Poseidon Handicap at Gulfstream. In his most recent start, Stanford blitzed an overmatched group of opponents in a track-record performance in Tampa Bay Downs’ March 11 Challenger Stakes.
Stanford was equipped with blinkers for the first time in the Challenger, a change his trainer thinks can move his colt up even further.
“The main objective with putting the blinkers on was keeping him focused throughout the race,” Pletcher said. “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.”
Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez will be aboard Stanford for the third consecutive time as he seeks his first win in the Charles Town Classic, while Pletcher aims for his third.
In his quest to join Researcher as the only Charles Town Classic winner in consecutive years, Stanford has been installed as the 8-5 morning-line favorite.
Stanford isn’t the only past Charles Town Classic winner. Imperative will become the first horse to start in four Classics and hopes to duplicate his 2014 effort, when he pulled off a shocker at 26-1. This year’s run will be for a third trainer, as Bob Hess Jr. will do the honors after Richard Baltas conditioned the son of Bernardini in 2016 and George Papaprodromou did so in 2014-15.
Now owned by a partnership of Loooch Racing and Imaginary Stables, Imperative has enjoyed a level of local success that he’s been unable to match elsewhere. In his three starts in the Charles Town Classic, Imperative has banked $1,342,500
“He loves the track configuration at Charles Town,” Hess said. “I think he loves that surface being a little kinder. Javier (Castellano) worked him the other day and he’s really happy with how’s he’s doing.”
Castellano will try to pilot Imperative to a second Charles Town Classic triumph after guiding Stanford to his win last year. So far, the pairing of Imperative and Castellano has left Hess encouraged.
“The horse is quirky, and he and Javier seem to have really clicked in the morning, so we’ll leave it up to the two experts,” Hess said. “But Javier certainly knows the track well there, and that’s a plus.”
The Charles Town Classic isn’t without a hometown angle, as trainer Jason Servis—a Charles Town native—will send out 2016 Withers Stakes (G3) winner and multiple grade 1-placed Sunny Ridge for Dennis Drazin.
For the second consecutive year, Reddam Racing and Doug O’Neill will be represented as well. After finishing third with Donworth in 2016, the two-time Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) winning duo ships Gangster east after the son out of multiple graded stakes winner Miss Isella made his stakes debut with an eighth in last month’s Santa Anita Handicap (G1).
Lady Sheila Stable’s Matt King Coal has always been held in high regard by her connections after being purchased for $250,000 at the Ocala Breeders' Sales 2-year-olds in training sale in April of 2015.
In 2016 the Florida-bred Matt King Coal was considered a Triple Crown contender following a front-running allowance score over eventual Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G1) runner-up My Man Sam, but was sent to the sideline for seven months after tiring and finishing fourth in the Wood Memorial Stakes (G1). Since returning, he’s locked down a pair of wins in three starts.