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CHARLES TOWN, WV – With back-to-back front-running victories last year in Keeneland’s Blue Grass Stakes (G2) and the Ellis Park Derby, Bruce Lunsford homebred Art Collector stamped himself one of the leaders of the 3-year-old division.
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In a 2020 racing season turned topsy-turvy by the COVID-19 pandemic, Art Collector stormed into an unusual October edition of the Preakness Stakes (G1) as one of the principal favorites. When the field crossed the finish line, however, Art Collector had checked in a dispiriting fourth, having never made the lead, the hallmark of his best efforts.
He went on to the Breeders’ Cup and was a well-beaten eighth in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1), and when he returned to the races 7 months later this past June, he was off the board again in the ungraded Kelly’s Landing at Churchill Downs.
Perplexed, Lunsford decided to shake things up and sent the son of Bernardini to Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott’s barn in Saratoga. On August 6, Art Collector raced for the first time under Mott and scorched a quality field in the Alydar Stakes, his imposing velocity back on full display.
Now, Mott will find out if Art Collector is all the way back, sending him out as the 5/2 morning-line favorite in a field of 10 Friday night in the 13th running of the $800,000 Charles Town Classic (G2) for 3-year-olds and up going 1 1/8 miles at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races.
Mott is one of the premier trainers in the history of racing, with more than $300 million in career earnings and horses like the great Cigar and Royal Delta on his resume. Even after decades in the sport, getting a horse like Art Collector still excites him, and that he runs in the Classic off just three weeks rest – uncharacteristically short for Mott – is a sign of high confidence.
“We’re glad to have the opportunity to have a horse like him in the barn,” Mott said. “It’s nice to have a horse you can take to these kinds of races, and you have some sort of chance.
“It’s a little bit risky coming in on that short rest, but it’s a nice race to participate in and the purse money is very good. If we had another week it would be a lot better, but that’s the only drawback.”
Mott’s lone other Charles Town Classic starter, Ron the Greek, finished a close-up third behind Game on Dude and Clubhouse Ride in the 2013 edition.
Jockey Luis Saez, the leading rider this summer at Saratoga, will fly in for the mount.
Art Collector Returns To Form In Alydar
Like Art Collector, every horse in the Classic has a resume laced with success as well as something to prove.
Ten Strike Racing and Madaket Stables’ 5-year-old millionaire Warrior’s Charge has been a top racer since 2019 but hasn’t won since taking the Razorback (G3) at Oaklawn Park in February 2020. Yet he has placed in 3 graded stakes, including last time out in the Stephen Foster (G2) at Churchill Downs, where he got pinballed around at the start only to rally courageously for second behind top-flight handicap horse Maxfield.
Normally a constant pace presence or front-runner, Warrior’s Charge showed maturity and a new dimension in the Stephen Foster, giving confidence to trainer Brad Cox that he’s not so one-dimensional.
“Maxfield is a cut above that group, but he ran second,” Cox said of the Stephen Foster. “But it showed [Warrior’s Charge] doesn’t have to go to the front and can pass horses. It wasn’t the way we thought it would play out, and we were happy with the way it played out.”
Cox admitted he didn’t know how Warrior’s Charge would run Friday, only that he expects a good race.
“I’m not a big instruction giver to begin with,” he said. “Florent (Geroux)’s riding him, and he knows the horse really well. We always try to break with the speed and be involved with all of our horses. Good jocks don’t need instruction and bad ones don’t listen. He’s training well at Ellis Park, and we’ll ship Wednesday.”
“We have to hopefully get a good trip and hopefully he likes Charles Town. There are 800,000 reasons to try it.”
Trainer David Fawkes comes into the race with Harold Queen’s homebred 6-year-old Noble Drama, a win machine making his first start outside of Florida.
The evening will be extra special for Fawkes as this is the 10th anniversary of him winning the Classic with Duke of Mischief, the first year the race was graded.
Charles Town has announced that Duke of Mischief, who stands stud at nearby Flowing Acres Farm, will lead the Classic post parade.
“I haven’t seen him in 10 years,” Fawkes said. “(VP of Racing & Sports Operations) Erich Zimny called me about a week ago and the farm manager called me. Now, I’ve gotta win.”
Fawkes just might. Noble Drama, who comes from off the pace has won 4 of his past 7 starts and 2 in a row. He’s a Sunshine Millions Classic winner with multiple stakes victories.
“He’s gotten really good this year, and he came off that layoff [in May] like a monster,” Fawkes said. “I know bull rings. You’ve got to pick your horses, and I think this is the right one. First of all, it’s how he’s built. He’s not a real big horse. He should be comfortable on the tighter turns. I never lean on him at all. I put a couple horses in front of him last work and he went 47 and 3 and galloped out in 59 and 1. He wasn’t even breathing.”
Angel Cruz has the call on Noble Drama on Friday night.
Jim and Donna Daniell’s Rushie has at times shown glimpses of being a top horse in his own right, and he will ship in from California for trainer Michael McCarthy. The 4-year-old son of Liam’s Map finished third last year in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) and third behind Art Collector in the Blue Grass before breaking through with a commanding win in the Pat Day Mile (G2) at Churchill Downs.
After finishing seventh behind the overwhelming Knicks Go in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, Rushie returned in April and missed winning the Oaklawn Mile by a nose. McCarthy said he thought the race portended good things to come, but Rushie ran fourth in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita (G1) and then dueled on the lead and tired to sixth in the San Diego Handicap (G2) last time out on July 17.
“The horse has been training well and had a bit of a head-scratcher in the San Diego,” McCarthy said. “I have no reservations about this. I thought this would be a big year for this horse. He ran so well in the Oaklawn Mile. He’s got a stamina pedigree. It’s been frustrating, but he’s got a lot of ability, and we hope he can get it all together on Friday.”
Hall of Fame jockey Victor Espinoza will ride Rushie in the Charles Town Classic.
Trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. will send out John Fanelli, Cash is King, and LC Racing’s Ny Traffic, another runner who has flashed tremendous promise and is looking for a breakthrough performance.
The gray 4-year-old son of Cross Traffic finished second last year in the Louisiana Derby (G2) and Matt Winn (G3) before nearly knocking off Horse of the Year Authentic in the Haskell (G1), beaten only by a nose.
Ny Traffic tailed off in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and has failed to regain his best form this year, although he showed glimpses with a good second in the Salvator Mile (G3) in June at Monmouth.
He also likes to be involved in the pace early.
“He’s a tactical type of horse,” Joseph said.
Tyler Gaffalione, who rode Ny Traffic in his last start at Monmouth, has the mount once again.
Informative Pulls Off Stunning Upset In Salvator Mile
The horse that beat Ny Traffic in the Salvator Mile was Informative, who won at odds of 79/1 and comes from the barn of one of racing’s long-shot kings, trainer Uriah St. Lewis.
St. Lewis won the 2018 Jockey Club Gold Cup with Discreet Lover at 45/1, who ran the following year in the Charles Town Classic. Last year, his Forewarned checked in seventh in the Classic.
Informative, a 4-year-old son of Bodemeister, comes into the Classic off a fifth-place finish behind Max Player and Mystic Guide in the 1 1/4 mile Suburban (G2) at Belmont Park.
“I work with him, work with him; we’re trying with him every day,” St. Lewis said. “We took him to Pimlico (for an allowance) and he ran a good race, so we decided to go to the Salvator Mile and won that. Then we went to the Suburban and we got beat, but it was still only 9 lengths to those types of horses.”
At 20/1 on the morning line, St. Lewis will have the services of Jose Ferrer in the irons as he attempts to pull the upset.
2020 Charles Town Classic winner Sleepy Eyes Todd will attempt to do what the prior seven horses in his shoes failed to accomplish – defending his title in West Virginia’s richest horse race. He waltzed home by 7 1/2 lengths last year and then took down two more graded stakes races before moving up and running consecutively in three of the world’s richest races – the $3,000,000 Pegasus World Cup Invitational (fourth), the $20,000,000 Saudi Cup (fifth) and the $12,000,000 Dubai World Cup (10th).
Sleepy Eyes Todd, owned by Thumbs Up Racing and trained by Miguel Angel Silva at Canterbury Park, hasn’t raced since April, when he finished third in a stakes race at Fonner Park in Nebraska.
Ry Eikleberry has the mount on Sleepy Eyes Todd in the 2021 Classic.
Bourbon Lane Stable and Six Column Stables will run 7-year-old Bourbon Calling, who won the 7-furlong Russell Road on the Classic undercard last year at the track and has twice placed in graded stakes.
“We know he likes the track,” said trainer Ian Wilkes. Sometimes it’s not the best horse that wins [at Charles Town] because that track is a little different.”
Bourbon Calling was prepped for the Classic by finishing third in the West Virginia’ Governor’s Stakes (G3) on August 7 at Mountaineer Park.
Joining Rushie in making the trip from out west is the versatile Restrainedvengence, a 6-year-old California shipper owned by Kelly Brinkerhoff and Bob Grayson and trained by Val Brinkerhoff.
The gelded son of Hold Me Back is a graded stakes winner on grass, placed in Grade 1 races, and is a stakes winner as well on dirt. In his most recent start, on July 24, Restrainedvengence finished sixth, beaten just 3 1/4 lengths by leading turfer United in the Eddie Reed (G2) at Del Mar.
Brinkerhoff had 2 decades of experience riding bull ring tracks and as a trainer breaks and prepares his babies at Dixie Downs, a 6-furlong track in St. George, Utah, before bringing them down to California.
He believes with that past experience that Restrainedvengence will take nicely to Charles Town.
“I trained him a little on Dixie Downs,” said Brinkerhoff, who decided to re-route his horse from the Del Mar Mile to take a shot in the Classic. “This is a really good horse. He’s never thrown in a clunker.”
Jockey Edwin Maldonado, a former leading rider at the old Fairplex in Pomona, California, will ride.
“He’s excellent on this type of track,” Brinkerhoff said.
Air Token completes the full field of ten for the Charles Town Classic on Friday.
The Classic, celebrating its 10th anniversary as Charles Town’s first graded stakes race, highlights a packed 13 race card that will see total purses top $2 million. Post time for the first race is 5:00 PM.
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