The following appeared on Bloodhorse.com April 20th. Charles Town’s biggest race of the year is the Classic, and it’s slated for Saturday April 21st in the afternoon. Horseplayers, take note — this is normally an evening track! The OTB at Ponies & Pints is having a free handicapping contest that afternoon with $500 in cash prizes up for grabs. Some of the 8 contest races are at Charles Town including the Classic!
By J. Keeler Johnson (“Keelerman”) Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Every year, one of my favorite races to handicap is the $1.2 million Charles Town Classic (gr. II) at Charles Town in West Virginia. The huge purse usually ensures that a competitive field lines up to contest the race, and what’s better than a group of talented older horses running nine furlongs around three turns at a six-furlong bullring racetrack known for producing quirky results?
That sounds like a recipe for upset winners and enticing payoffs, and indeed, only one favorite has prevailed in nine renewals of the Charles Town Classic. Not every payoff has been as impressive as $55.00 return generated by 2014 winner Imperative (who proved that experience over the track is a positive by winning again in 2017), but it has certainly paid to think outside the box when handicapping the Charles Town Classic.
I plan to keep this trend on my side in the 2018 edition of the race while siding against the 8-5 morning line favorite Diversify. The New York-bred son of Bellamy Road put together an impressive three-race win streak last year, prevailing in the Saginaw Stakes and Evan Shipman Stakes against fellow state-breds before stepping up sharply in class for the ten-furlong Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) and winning in gate-to-wire fashion with a 107 Beyer.
However, I felt at the time that Diversify benefited from securing a very easy lead in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and when he returned to action in the Clark Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs I questioned whether he would be as effective while shipping away from the fast tracks at Belmont and Saratoga for the first time. Diversify started as the favorite in the Clark, but after once again securing a clear lead, he faltered in the final furlong to finish fourth.
Diversify’s best effort would certainly make him a contender in the Charles Town Classic, but he’ll be returning from a five-month layoff on Saturday while racing over a track much, much different than what he is accustomed to in New York. I think he will be vulnerable at a short price.
I’m more interested in War Story, the second choice at 5-2. Although consistency has never been War Story’s strong suit, there can be no denying that he’s stepped up his game in a big way over the last year or so, with his best efforts including a win in the Brooklyn Handicap (gr. II) and a strong fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I).
War Story signaled that he’s still in good form by winning the Challenger Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs last month by 5 ¾ lengths with a 107 Beyer, and it’s important to note that he’s the only horse in the Charles Town Classic that has previously run at Charles Town-he finished third by just a half-length in this race last year. His experience over the track is a major positive, as is the fact that he’ll be ridden by Javier Castellano, who has three victories and a second-place finish from five rides in the Charles Town Classic.
But if you really want to think outside the box, why not consider the 8-1 shot Something Awesome? Owned by Stronach Stable and trained by Jose Corrales, the seven-year-old son of Awesome Again has competed over an astonishing variety of distances and surfaces since his debut in November 2014, and he’s also been conditioned by three different trainers while competing from coast-to-coast and in Canada as well.
But for all of his exploits, there’s one thing that Something Awesome hasn’t done very often, and that is run a mile or farther on dirt. Remarkably, it appears that this may have been his ideal trip all along, which isn’t really a surprise since his sire is the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Awesome Again. After being transferred to the care of Corrales last year and shipped from Woodbine to Laurel Park, Something Awesome showed new life sprinting on dirt, winning three of his first four starts over the winter, including the seven-furlong General George Stakes (gr. III).
But it was Something Awesome’s effort in the nine-furlong Harrison E. Johnson Memorial Stakes at Laurel last month that really caught my attention. After rating nicely just behind the early leaders, Something Awesome advanced to take the lead with three furlongs remaining, then drew off decisively to win by 2 ¼ lengths with a career-best 100 Beyer speed figure. Notably, the distant third-place finisher-Discreet Lover-came right back to win the Excelsior Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct and is also entered in the Charles Town Classic.
Something Awesome will be facing tougher competition in the Charles Town Classic, but I think his overall record will cause him to be overlooked in the wagering despite the fact that his only try in a dirt route over the last three years yielded an impressive victory. It seems odd to say this about a horse that is seven years old, but a case can be made that Something Awesome is only now reaching his peak.
I hope to see Something Awesome work out a perfect trip settling behind Diversify and the front-running Afleet Willy early on before making his move in the final three furlongs. If he stays near his morning line odds of 8-1, I think he’ll offer the best value in the race and is a horse to use on top and in the exotics with War Story. In fact, a Something Awesome/War Story exacta box seems like the perfect play to me.