Weekend Preview: Charles Town Classic off and running

The Charles Town Classic heads the agenda this weekend in Thoroughbred racing as the Kentucky Derby contestants gather at Churchill Downs and Hong Kong preps for its springtime international festival.

There’s only one new “modern” inductee to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame this year. See “News and Notes” for details. (See, we know about “click bait”.)

No need to bait this tasty hook:

Charles Town

Diversify and last year’s just-missed third-place finisher War Story top a field of seven for Saturday’s $1.2 million Grade II Charles Town Classic. The annual highlight at the West Virginia oval had to survive a threatened purse reduction by state officials before getting the go-ahead but the prize was worth the pursuit.

Diversify, once content with beating his fellow New York-breds, rose to national attention with a victory in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup last fall and followed that with a fourth-place finish, beaten just over 3 lengths, in the Grade I Clark Handicap. He hasn’t raced since that heat last Nov. 24 — a break which does not trouble trainer Richard Violette.

“He’s doing super,” said Violette. “He’s shown that he’s run well fresh, and we’re looking forward to getting his 5-year-old campaign kicked off in a big way.”

War Story has been busier of late. Beaten only 1/2 length in last year’s Charles Town fixture, the Northern Afleet gelding subsequently finished fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic last fall, misfired in the Grade I Pegasus World Cup, finishing a tired 10th, then won the Challenger Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs by 5 3/4 lengths March 10.

Several others are graded stakes winners and Something Awesome and Afleet Willy come to the race with two-race win streaks on the line.

Charles Town supports the Classic with five other stakes.

If you can’t get to Charles Town in person, catch all the action live from trackside on Horse Racing Radio Network (www.horseracingradio.net) with Mike Penna and Jude Feld describing the action. For insights, check www.popejude.com.

Santa Anita

Three graded stakes are on tap this weekend at The Great Race Place.

On Saturday, it’s the Grade III American Stakes at 1 mile on the turf and the Grade II Kona Gold Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs on the main track. Only five turned out for the Kona Gold but at least it looks competitive. Nine are set for the American.

Sunday is the traditional 14-furlongs San Juan Capistrano, a Grade III affair on the grass.

Keeneland

Saturday’s feature is the Grade II Dixiana Elkhorn at 1 1/2 miles on the grass. A field of 12 features morning-line favorite Itsinthepost and quite a few other familiar turf stayers.

Laurel Park

Look to Saturday’s $125,000 Federico Tessio Stakes for 3-year-olds for clues to potential “new shooters” in the Preakness Stakes.

Hawthorne Race Course

Chicago’s in-town track has two Saturday stakes for 3-year-old Illinois-breds: The Land of Lincoln for colts and geldings and the Pretty Jenny Stakes fillies. One day Illinois’ lawmakers and governor will realize the potential of the state’s tracks and Hawthorne will return to its former prominence. We hope.

International

The runup to the Investec Derby rolls on this weekend and into the following week.

Saturday it’s the Group 3 Al Basti Equiworld Supporting Greatwood Greenham Stakes at Newbury. Frankel won this event in 2011, which doesn’t necessarily reflect its status as a Derby producer.

Not so the Investec Blue Riband Trial at Epsom itself on April 25. That listed event provides a wild-card entry to the Derby and Cracksman won it last year.

A related thought: If Mendelssohn wins at Churchill Downs, would he pursue the U.S. Triple Crown or a Derby-Derby double?

News and notes:

The lone contemporary selection to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame is … drumroll … Heavenly Prize. The Eclipse Award-winning mare was the only one of 10 finalists named on more than 50 percent of the ballots submitted from a panel of 166 racing writers, broadcasters, industry officials and historians. Heavenly Prize will be inducted Aug. 3 at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The ceremony is free and open to the public.

Bred in Kentucky by owner Ogden Phipps, Heavenly Prize, by Seeking the Gold out of the Nijinsky II mare Oh What a Dance, was a Grade I winner at ages 2, 3 and 4 for trainer Shug McGaughey. She was named champion 3-year-old filly in 1994 when she notched consecutive Grade I wins in the Alabama, Gazelle and Beldame. She one-upped that as a 4-year-old, winning four Grade I races in a row: The Apple Blossom Handicap, Hempstead Handicap, Go for Wand Stakes and John A. Morris Handicap.

She finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in both 1994 and 1995. She raced once as a 5-year-old, finishing third in the Donn Handicap, which was won by Hall of Famer Cigar.

Heavenly Prize died in 2013 at the age of 22 at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky.

On a lighter note:

Rob Gronkowski, the football player, has acquired an interest in Gronkowski, the horse. The latter qualified for the Kentucky Derby through the “European Road to the Kentucky Derby” and the two are expected to meet during preparations for the Run for the Roses.

Also:

Breeders’ Cup Thursday announced its 2018 Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series: 82 automatic qualifying stakes races leading into corresponding Breeders’ Cup World Championships races. The 2018 slate includes 66 Grade I or Group 1 events. Of that total, at least 49 Challenge races are run in the U.S. and Canada and 33 outside of North America — four of them during the Royal Ascot meeting.

The foreign races are in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, England, France, Japan, Ireland, Peru and South Africa.

As part of the enhanced benefits to horsemen competing in the series, Breeders’ Cup will pay the entry fees and guarantee a starting position in a corresponding Championships race for qualified winners of all Challenge races.

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