04/14/2011 4:33PM

Charles Town Classic: $1 million purse draws an overflow field of 14


Charles Town, W.Va., seems a most unlikely setting to bring the top older horses in training together, but such is life in the slots-infused world of Thoroughbred racing. The $1 million purse offered for the Grade 3 Charles Town Classic brought 10 graded stakes winners to this bullring of a racetrack from California, Florida, Maryland, and New York.

Actually, 14 were entered – including two-time Charles Town Classic winner Researcher – but the race is limited to 10 starters.

“It’s amazing what a million dollars will do these days,” said trainer Bob Baffert, who shipped Santa Anita Handicap winner Game On Dude cross-country for this race.

“Ain’t too many million-dollar races around,” said Luis Olivares, owner and trainer of multiple stakes winner Tackleberry, who shipped up from south Florida. “You can’t pass them up.”

Game On Dude (7-2) and Tackleberry (4-1) are the two top choices on the morning line for a seemingly wide-open renewal of the Charles Town Classic, one of six stakes races on an 11-race card that begins at 6:30 p.m. Eastern. The card also includes the $250,000 Sugar Maple Stakes for fillies and mares at seven furlongs and the $100,000 Blue and Gold Stakes for 3-year-old males, also at seven furlongs.

On March 5, Game On Dude won a controversial running of the Santa Anita Handicap by a nose over Setsuko but then sustained a quarter crack that prevented him from shipping for the Dubai World Cup. Baffert said he has “no idea” how Game On Dude will handle the Charles Town track, which is six furlongs in circumference, meaning the 1 1/8-mile Charles Town Classic will be run around three turns.

“A bullring, I don’t know what to expect,” said Baffert, who will be in Arkansas on Saturday saddling The Factor in the $1 million Arkansas Derby for 3-year-olds. “I know we run horses at [Fairplex], and some horses really run well there.”

Baffert is counting on the bullring experience of jockey David Flores to get Game On Dude around the track adroitly. Baffert tabbed Flores to replace Chantal Sutherland – who won the Santa Anita Handicap on the horse – because of his success at Fairplex, a track that is five furlongs in circumference.

“You got to know when to make your move,” Baffert said. “He’ll know if the horse is liking it or not.”

While Game On Dude is drawn in post 10, Tackleberry will break from post 2 under Javier Santiago. Tackleberry won three stakes at Gulfstream, including the 1 1/8-mile Sunshine Millions Classic, the Gulfstream Park Handicap at a mile, and the Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship at seven furlongs.

In all three wins, Tackleberry was on or close to the lead, and Olivares is planning to use the gelding’s speed and inside post to his advantage.

“The key to this race is to break good, the turn is right in front of you,” Olivares said. “I don’t think the track will be any problem. He shipped beautifully. He acts like he’s been here forever.”

As a 2-year-old, Rule won a pair of stakes at Delta Downs – also six furlongs in circumference. The problem is he only has one win since, though he was only beaten two lengths by Giant Oak in the Grade 1 Donn at Gulfstream, finishing a nose behind Morning Line. Most recently, Rule was beaten three lengths by Tackleberry in the Gulfstream Park Handicap.

“He’s handled a bullring-type circumference well, and if you look at the form he’s held this winter, he’s run competitively with Morning Line, and Morning Line won the Carter,” Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Rule, said. “The last race wasn’t great, he got stuck down inside, and I thought we made a tactical error not putting him in the race a little more ambitiously than we did.”

Tizway and Acclamation are other horses that likely will want to be in the race from the outset.

Inherit the Gold has won five consecutive races, and his trainer, James Hooper, said the horse continues to thrive on the activity. He figures to get first run on the real closers in the field such as Awesome Gem, who was second in this race last year, and Gone Astray, who finished seventh in the Charles Town Classic after clipping heels entering the first turn.

Duke of Mischief passed trying for a repeat in the Oaklawn Handicap for a shot at this $1 million purse. He was beaten three-quarters of a length by Tackleberry in the Gulfstream Park Handicap.

No Advantage, who won the Grade 2 General George, is 3 for 7 at Charles Town but was beaten 20 lengths in this race last year.