Three-year-olds will command national attention as the Triple Crown series unfolds in the coming weeks, but older stakes horses will be spotlighted in three grade 2 stakes races April 21, topped by the 10th running of the $1.2 million Charles Town Classic in West Virginia and the 33rd edition of the Dixiana Elkhorn Stakes at Keeneland.
Interestingly enough, the Charles Town Classic, at 1 1/8 miles on dirt, and the Elkhorn, scheduled for 1 1/2 miles on turf, are both contested around three turns.
The Charles Town Classic is part of another Cross Country Pick 4 that also includes the inaugural running of the Dance To Bristol (also at Charles Town) for older filly-and-mare sprinters, and Aqueduct Racetrack's Park Avenue division of the New York Stallion Series for 3-year-old fillies.
Meanwhile, out in Arcadia, California, a stakes doubleheader of the Kona Gold Stakes (G2) for older sprinters, and the American Stakes (G3T) for veteran turf milers are the featured attractions at Santa Anita Park.
Diversify got tremendously good through the heart of last season, so good that his front-running romp in the nine-furlong Evan Shipman over fellow New York-breds at Saratoga Race Course was accomplished in 1:47.48 seconds, which was on par with the times Gun Runner posted in winning the meet's premier grade 1 events for older horses, the Whitney (1:47.71) and the Woodward (1:47.43). The 5-year-old son of Bellamy Road springboarded off that performance to post a mild upset in the storied Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes (G1).
However, Diversify concluded the year on a down note, faltering to fourth as the 7-5 choice in the Clark Handicap Presented By Norton Healthcare (G1), and he comes into this race off a layoff of nearly five months, albeit with a series of good workouts at Palm Meadows showing on his tab. There is a good possibility he will pressed through the opening fractions by Afleet Willy (7), who has won his last five starts at a mile or longer and is the field's only two-time winner at the distance.
War Story was third in this race a year ago, finishing a half-length behind Imperative, who had run second at 31-1 in the 2015 running, and fourth in 2016. Experience with tight-turned layout at Charles Town can be a valuable asset. Moreover, War Story appears to be in better form now than he was going into this race a year ago, and he is dropping five pounds off a fast win in the Challenger Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.
If a pace meltdown occurs, Fear the Cowboy (1) may come flying into the picture late, as he cuts back from a third-place finish in the Santa Anita Handicap Presented By San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino (G1).
A - 5
B - 1, 6
C - 7
Dixiana Elkhorn (Kee, race 9, 5:30 ET):Itsinthepost (10) is the morning-line favorite at 5-2, and deservedly so, since he won this race a year ago at those odds, and ships in after starting the season with three straight wins in the San Gabriel (G2T), San Marcos (G2T) and the San Luis Rey Stakes (G2T)—races in which he ran second-second-first in 2017.
But it's hard to be confident about any horse in a turf stake when there is an opponent from the barn of Chad Brown, who got off to a 9-3-2 start with his first 17 starters at Keeneland, including four graded stakes victories, and a sweep of the top three spots in last Saturday's Coolmore Jenny Wiley Stakes (G1T) with Sistercharlie, Fourstar Crook, and Off Limits.
So although the Brown-trained Call Provision(3) hasn't been out since running out of ground and finishing a close second in the Red Smith Handicap (G3T) back in November, recall that Sistercharlie's huge effort last week was her first outing since the Belmont Oaks Invitational Stakes (G1T) last July.
On his best efforts, the returning veteran Hunter O'Riley (8) is as good as the top two. One of his better performances was a 12-furlong allowance win at Keeneland off a three-month layoff last April, and he appears to have trained forwardly at Palm Meadows for long-distance grass ace Jimmy Toner.
A - 3, 10
B - 8
Kona Gold (SA, race 5, 2:00 PT): Only five signed up for this 6 1/2-furlong dash, headed by Ransom the Moon (5), who won last year's renewal from off the pace rather decisively, and went on to take the Bing Crosby Stakes (G1) during the summer, before winding up a solid campaign with a wide fifth-place finish in the TwinSpires Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1).
Ransom the Moon will have to catch Bobby Abu Dhabi(2), who has yet to win a stakes, but comes off a pace-setting runner-up finish in the Triple Bend Stakes (G1) against City of Light, who then stretched out to best Big 'Cap winner Acceleratein last Saturday's $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2).
A - 5
B - 2, 3
American (SA, race 8, 3:30 PT): Colonist(3) has yet to win a stakes race, but he came close when beaten less than a length in the La Jolla Handicap (G3T) age 3, and seems to be rounding back to peak form for Hall Of Fame conditioner Jerry Hollendorfer.
Two starts back, Colonist unleashed a screaming last quarter in a little over 22 seconds to win a one-mile allowance race over this course and trip, and he will benefit from the cutback in distance after flattening out through the final stages of the 12-furlong San Luis Rey won by the streaking Itsinthepost. There could be some value here at 6-1 on the line.
Blackjackcat won three stakes in succession last summer, and was a rallying third in the Breeders' Cup Mile (G1T), but the case can be made that he is a few lengths better at Del Mar than anywhere else, and he will have to improve off a flat fifth in the Thunder Road Stakes (G3T) as the even-money favorite.
Kenjisstorm was sidelined for over eight months after running fourth in the Eddie Read Stakes (G2T) last July, and is back 23 days after taking a high-end optional claimer in his first start for trainer Phil D'Amato.
A - 3
B - 5, 9