04/20/2017 12:26PM

Stanford faces tricky assignment in quest for Charles Town Classic repeat

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Stanford figures to be part of a contested pace in the Charles Town Classic.

Stanford won the Grade 2 Charles Town Classic a year ago and will be favored to do so again Saturday. He’s nicely drawn in post 1 for the three-turn, 1 1/8-mile race and is at the top of his game.

Still, the Classic looks like a trickier assignment than in 2016.

Javier Castellano, Stanford’s rider at this time last year, sent him right to the lead from post 7. He set comfortable fractions while under light pressure from Page McKenney, and the pair finished first and second without being seriously challenged by anyone else.

The pace figures to be more heated Saturday. Matt King Coal is a quick colt, and Cautious Giant, one of three entrants in the eight-horse field for Ron Paolucci’s Loooch Racing, is a sprinter whose job may be to set the table for his owner’s other horses.

“We’re going to try and steal it,” Paolucci said of his strategy for Cautious Giant.

If Stanford is successful in the $1.25 million Classic, he will become the second two-time winner of the event. Researcher, trained by local leading trainer Jeff Runco, won the Classic’s first two runnings in 2009-10.

Todd Pletcher, who trains Stanford, is shooting for his third win in the Classic. He won the race in 2012 with Caixa Eletronica.

Pletcher said he will let jockey John Velazquez decide where to place Stanford early in the race, which will be run over the tight six-furlong Charles Town oval.

“We’ll just let him roll out of there, see what everybody else does, and leave it to Johnny,” Pletcher said. “That’s why he’s there. We’re certainly not going to take back at Charles Town.”

Pletcher said Stanford is built to handle the Charles Town turns.

“He is a handy horse, which is important at Charles Town,” Pletcher said. “He and Caixa Eletronica have similar compact physiques. You need to run the turns really well at Charles Town.”

Imperative has excelled at Charles Town and will be making his fourth straight start in the Classic. He won the race in 2014 and finished second the next year for trainer George Papaprodromou. Last year, he may have been compromised by the soft pace and finished fourth for trainer Richard Baltas. Paolucci purchased him in January. Imperative is now conditioned by Bob Hess Jr.

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Other leading contenders include Sunny Ridge, who has won the Stymie and Jazil stakes at Aqueduct in his last two starts for Charles Town, W.Va., native Jason Servis, and War Story, who finished fifth of 12 in the $12 million Pegasus World Cup for Paolucci while making his first start for trainer Jorge Navarro.

Saturday is the only afternoon card of the Charles Town season. The 13-race card will begin at 12:45 p.m. Eastern, with the Classic set for 5:35. The Classic will be part of a broadcast on FOX Sports 2 that runs from 4-6 p.m.

The entire card will be streamed live on DRF.com. A $100,000-guaranteed all-stakes pick four will be offered on races 9-12, with the Classic as its third leg.

Charles Town Classic, Race 11

Key Contenders

Stanford, by Malibu Moon

Last 3 Beyers: 102-103-101

◗ He dropped a head decision to Imperative after a hard-fought stretch battle in the $400,000 Poseidon on the Pegasus undercard at Gulfstream Park. To make sure Stanford stays focused, Pletcher equipped him with blinkers for his most recent race, a 3 1/4-length win in the Challenger at Tampa Bay Downs.

“The blinkers acted like they helped him last time,” Pletcher said. “I was very pleased with that race.”

Sunny Ridge, by Holy Bull

Last 3 Beyers: 99-96-89

◗ He finished third in the Haskell last year despite coming into the race off a five-month layoff. He was flat in his next three starts but has now regained his best form.

“The Haskell may have gotten to him for a few races,” Servis said. “It may have weakened him for a while.”

Imperative, by Bernardini

Last 3 Beyers: 79-103-86

◗ Following his Poseidon win, he finished last of nine in the Santa Anita Handicap.

“He threw both front shoes in the Santa Anita race,” Paolucci said. “When we bought him, our intention was to keep him out of California. That track kind of beats him up. It bothers his feet.”

◗ Castellano, who has won the Classic twice, worked Imperative on April 13 at Keeneland.

“Javier had other horses to ride Saturday, but his agent called me and said Javier was impressed with him and wanted the mount,” Paolucci said.

War Story, by Northern Afleet

Last 3 Beyers: 90-99-106

◗ He won the Queens County at Aqueduct by 7 3/4 lengths in January prior to his fifth in the Pegasus. He ran an even race to be fifth last time out in the Grade 3 Hooper at Gulfstream.

“The Pegasus may have knocked him out a little, but he’s doing good now,” Paolucci said. “I really can’t separate him and Imperative.”