Three runners entered the $1.25 million Charles Town Classic Stakes (G2) April 22 for Loooch Racing and Imaginary Stables, and one got by with a little help from his friends.
Old-timer Imperative, closing into a hotly contested pace set by longshot stablemate Cautious Giant and favored 2016 Charles Town Classic winner Stanford, became just the second horse to win multiple editions of the 1 1/8-mile event when a well-orchestrated plan came together at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races.
Cautious Giant, sent out to press Stanford on the lead, did his job and set up Imperative's path to victory before calling it a day. Imperative, closing wide from sixth after a stalking trip under Javier Castellano, returned to the winning form that saw him take the Jan. 28 Poseidon Handicap. War Story, owned in partnership by Loooch and Imaginary with Glenn Ellis, ground along and picked up third behind a final time of 1:53.05.
“Plenty of pace," trainer Bob Hess Jr. said of Imperative's run. "We had a smooth trip. I thought we might be in trouble going into the far turn and I thought he was really wide, but I didn’t know how much horse he had left. Javier found that extra gear and when he got to the front, he might have hung a touch but then kind of surged again, so it was exciting.”
Castellano became the first rider in history to win three editions of West Virginia's signature race, but he had to hang on tight headed into the winner's circle. Imperative didn't seem to recall the drill after getting up on a sloppy track to claim his Charles Town double, and dragged his groom in a skittish circle with Castellano in the irons as a blanket of yellow and blue flowers was placed over his withers.
You could forgive the 7-year-old Bernardini gelding, however, if the memory of a Charles Town celebration was a little foggy. His first Charles Town Classic win—and first stakes score—came in 2014 for KM Racing Enterprise and trainer George Papaprodromou with a 26-1 upset of multiple grade 1 winner Game On Dude, and although he returned to the Charles Town Classic in 2015 and 2016, he was runner-up and fourth in those editions. He joins Researcher (2009-10) as the only two-time winners of the race.
Shifted to Hess at the end of 2016, Imperative won Gulfstream Park's Poseidon at first asking for his new connections, but then ran ninth in the March 11 Santa Anita Handicap Presented by San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino (G1) at Santa Anita Park. Saturday, he delivered with an outside neck score over Matt King Coal, who briefly took the lead turning for home and then held War Story from the place by another neck in a blanket finish.
Imperative returned $12, $4.80, and $5 at odds of 5-1, Matt King Coal brought $7.40 and $4.60 at 8-1, and War Story paid $3.80 at 7-2.
Stanford weakened after taking on Cautious Giant through opening fractions of :23.43 and :47.38, then chasing Matt King Coal after three-quarters in 1:12.60. He finished fifth behind Bodhisattva. Completing the order of finish were Sunny Ridge, Gangster, and Cautious Giant.
A well-bred bay produced in Kentucky by Glencrest Farm and Darley out of the stakes-winning Caller I.D. mare Call Her—also the dam of 2005 Churchill Downs Handicap (G2) winner Battle Won—Imperative was a $325,000 purchase by John Ferguson from the Four Star Sales consignment to the 2011 Keeneland September yearling sale. He raced 10 times for Darley before Papaprodromou claimed him for $50,000 in December of 2013.
"I love the (Charles Town) surface," Hess said. "I don’t mean wet or not wet, either. It looks like a really kind surface and the banks on the turns are superb and the best horse won.
"I think a big key was (Loooch principal) Ron (Paolucci) allowing us to take him to Keeneland and train him on the synthetic there, which is a really kind surface, which is what this horse needs. He needs Gulfstream, he needs these soft East Coast tracks.”
Imperative's résumé now features a 6-8-3 record from 38 starts, with earnings of $2,973,135. The June 10 Metropolitan Handicap (G1) at Belmont Park could be a target in the future.
“The big key for him is getting him away from California," Paolucci explained. "It’s hard. It’s not a good surface for him to train on. He runs there on all heart. I think we’re going to have a good campaign with him this summer out here on the East Coast, and I think if you look at every race he’s run outside of California, it’s been dynamite.
"We’re thinking about the Met Mile. Giving him a little time in between. It looks like there would be a lot of speed in that race, but we’ll see. That’s the initial plan.“