While there is a bit of a lull as we await the Kentucky Derby Presented By Yum! Brands (G1) on the first Saturday in May, there will be some noteworthy stakes action April 22.
Indeed, the richest race on the planet this Earth Day is in West Virginia, of all places, as the $1.25 million Charles Town Classic (G2) highlights a card that includes seven other stakes.
At Keeneland, Mike Maker trains four of the 11 older marathoners entered in the $250,000 Dixiana Elkhorn (G2T).
At Hawthorne Race Course, Todd Pletcher shoots for his fifth victory in the $250,000 Illinois Derby (G3), sending out Hedge Fund, who takes on six other 3-year-olds after setting a sharp early pace in the Sunland Derby (G3).
Meanwhile, Laurel Park cards five stakes worth a total of $475,000, topped by the Federico Tesio and Weber City Miss, a pair of $125,000 stakes that are "Win and You're In" events for the Preakness Stakes (G1) and Black-Eyed Susan Stakes (G2) respectively.
Charles Town Classic (CT, race 11, 5:35 EDT): The third leg of an all-stakes pick four, the three-turn Charles Town Classic features defending titlist Stanford (#1), who made all the pace last year, and Imperative (#5), the 2014 winner, who makes his fourth consecutive start in the race.
After leading in the stretch but getting nipped at the wire by Imperative in the Poseidon Stakes, Stanford added blinkers for a front-running score in the Challenger Stakes on March 11. Stanford is listed as the 8-5 choice to turn the tables on Imperative, who also ran March 11, when he reportedly lost a shoe finishing last of nine in the Santa Anita Handicap (G1).
Looch Racing Stables, co-owner of Imperative, also entered War Story (#6) and Cautious Giant (#8). The latter was claimed out of his previous start for $62,500, and figures to be used as a rabbit in his first route start since September 2015.
Stanford will likely have to expend more energy toward the front-end than he did last year, as Matt King Coal (#4), the pacesetter in last year's Wood Memorial (G1) in his only prior graded-stakes attempt, will be forwardly placed as well.
A hot pace could aid Sunny Ridge (#2), who is 2 for 2 this year, and a good candidate to handle the sharp turns based on his prior experience over a six-furlong oval—a close second in the 2015 Delta Jackpot (G3).
A - 1, 2
B - 4, 5
Dixiana Elkhorn (Kee, race 9, 5:30 EDT): Trip handicappers have been awaiting the return of Red Rifle (#3), a classy old pro who was boxed in at a crucial juncture of his comeback race at Gulfstream Park and finished fastest after altering course too late.
The 12-furlong Elkhorn features no fewer than four contenders who have been narrowly beaten in recent renewals of the Sycamore, which is contested over the same course and distance in the fall at Keeneland:
* Red Rifle was second, beaten a half-length after leading to deep stretch in 2014.
* Bullards Alley (#6) was third in the Sycamore last fall, a half-length behind Bigger Picture.
The big picture is a highly competitive Elkhorn that also includes Itsinthepost (#4), last-out winner of the San Luis Rey (G2T) at Santa Anita Park; and Taghleeb (#8), who won the William L. McKnight (G2T) for Maker earlier this season at Gulfstream Park.
Maker's fourth entrant, Roman Approval (#10), looks to be in a bit tough, but may wind up on or near the lead with Chocolate Ride (#11), after being shuffled back in the Muniz Memorial (G2T) in his first start of the year.
A - 3, 5
B - 4, 8
C - 9
Illinois Derby (Haw, race 5, 6:17 CDT): It seemed as though early speed had a tough time holding at Sunland Park on March 26, so Hedge Fund (#2) rates another chance after setting the pace and fading to third in his first start following a maiden win at Gulfstream. Hence rallied from next-to-last to win the Sunland Derby, and earlier on the program, the following occurred:
Sippin was run down at 2-5 in the New Mexico Breeders' Oaks.
The top three finishers in the New Mexico Breeders' Derby were positioned 11-12-10 at the first call.
However, Hedge Fund will be overbet because of his connections, and this is a situation where getting a line on some of the others is rather tricky: It's Your Nickel (#3) ran his best race winning the John Battaglia Memorial on Turfway Park's synthetic surface; and Mr. Misunderstood (#6) is 4 for 4 on turf or in the slop, but 0 for 3 on fast dirt tracks.
The best finish in a graded stakes belongs to Hollywood Handsome (#7), who was a rallying fourth in the Louisiana Derby (G2) last out.
A - 2
B - 3, 6, 7
C - 1
Weber City Miss (Lrl, race 4, 2:50 EDT): Many bettors, myself included, will likely stand alone with Jenda's Agenda (#3), an up-and-coming filly who is 3 for 3 for Larry Jones, and tabbed as the 3-5 choice to start off a pick four sequence that concludes with the Tesio.
Federico Tesio (Lrl, race 7, 4:33 EDT): Like the Weber City Miss, the Tesio lured only five, but things look a bit more competitive on paper.
After watching him wander around through the stretch beating first-level allowance foes at Tampa Bay Downs second time out, I thought the addition of blinkers would really help Action Everyday (#2) in the Gotham (G3), but he was never in the hunt and wound up a distant fourth.
This may be an easier spot for Action Everyday, or it might not be, owing to the presence of Carradine (#5), a New York-bred who raced four wide throughout a big-figure win over open first-level allowance types on the inner dirt at Aqueduct Racetrack most recently for Linda Rice, who has won previous editions of the Tesio with Kid Cruz (2014) and Talk's Cheap (1999).
A - 2
B - 5