They came from all over the country to contest Saturday's $1 million Grade II Charles Town Classic but it was local boy Runnin'toluvya who beat 'em all at the scenic West Virginia oval.
The Classic was the highlight of the weekend racing schedule as the Kentucky Derby candidates gathered at rainy Churchill Downs with two week to go before their once-in-a-lifetime chance.
Contenders also are preparing for the first of the English Classics, the Qipco 2,000 Guineas, but one-time hot favorite Too Darn Hot won't be among them. England also put an exclamation mark to the All-Weather Championships season with Finals Day on Good Friday.
Hoping all had a happy Easter and are having a great Passover, we'll start just a few miles down U.S. 340 from Harper's Ferry, W.Va., with:
The Charles Town Classic
The $1 million purse drew horses from California, Florida and Arkansas. Others showed last-race past performances from Saratoga and Churchill Downs. But when the racing dictionary some day defines "horse for the course," Runnin'toluvya's picture will be right there.
The 5-year-old Fiber Sonde gelding is a West Virginia-bred and 14 of his 15 previous starts were at Charles Town, primarily against fellow state-breds. Despite an eight-race winning streak, Runnin'toluvya got little love from the fans, going to the post at odds of nearly 10-1 for the Classic.
With Oscar Flores riding, Runnin'tolovya tracked the pace set by Diamond King and moved to challenge with a half mile to run. They ran virtually as a team to the wire with only 1/2 length between them at the end and the local boy on top. War Story was a distant third and the favorite, Rally Cry, finished fourth. The 1 1/8 miles on a fast track took 1:50.56.
"It just means so much to me to be able to represent the West Virginia program like this," said winning owner-trainer Timothy Grams. "I really wanted him to represent us well and I think he did a lot better than that today.
"I know this sounds corny but this is the best thing that's ever happened to me besides me meeting my wife 18 years ago," Grams added. "This is just unbelievable, especially for a country boy that didn't have anything. It means anybody who walks through this gate here has a chance and that's why this business is so great."
Runnin'toloveya wins Saturday's $1 million Charles Town Classic, Charles Town Photo, courtesy Coady Photography
The Triple Crown Trail
The Kentucky Derby candidates already gathered in Louisville endured some trying weather during the weekend -- first heavy rain that scrambled Saturday training plans, then dense fog that settled in on Easter morning.
The only early riser Sunday for an actual work was UAE Derby winner Plus Que Parfait, who put in a half mile that wasn't timed because the clockers couldn't see him.
"It was a shame about the fog," said trainer Brendan Walsh. "I had one of my assistants on the phone at the half-mile pole to warn me on the front side (that the work started) and I had him in 49 2/5. It was exactly what I wanted."
Most of the others assembled under the Twin Spires either galloped leisurely or walked the shedrow, even more leisurely. Monday's weather forecast was much more favorable. But, after the unpredicted deluge that swamped the 2018 Derby, skepticism remains about meteorological augury.
While Churchill Downs waited, weekend racing action centered on Laurel Park in Maryland where Saturday's $125,000 Federico Tessio Stakes is a proving ground for horses heading to the second jewel of the Triple Crown -- the Preakness Stakes.
Accordingly, Alwaysmining was always winning the Tessio as the overwhelming favorite. The Stay Thirsty gelding tracked an undemanding early pace, took over when asked by jockey Daniel Centeno and was gone, winning by 11 1/2 lengths, wrapped up. Trifor Gold and Bozzine were second and third as Alwaysmining finished 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.12.
Alwaysmining, trained by Kelly Rubley, now has six straight wins, all at Laurel Park. The Tessio victory carries an automatic berth in the Preakness and Rubly said, "As long as we come back okay, that's the goal … You just hate to get overconfident, but this is what I had expected to happen so I'm really glad it came true. We're all very excited. It's a fabulous day."
The race is named for a famed Italian breeder, owner and trainer whose undefeated homebreds, Nearco and Ribot, are still found in the pedigrees of top Thoroughbreds throughout the world.
The 3-year-old fillies
Las Setas dueled with Our Super Freak through most of Saturday's $125,000 Weber City Miss Stakes at Laurel Park, finally prevailing by nose. It was another 4 1/3 lengths back to Pat's No Fool in third. Las Setas, a Maryland-bred filly by Seville, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.79 with Jevian Toledo riding for trainer Katharine Voss. Las Setas now has four straight wins, all at Laurel.
The race is a "Win and You're In" for the Black-Eyed Susan on Preakness weekend on Preakness weekend and Voss admitted to being excited about that prospect. "Obviously, if everything goes well, that's what we'd like to do next, but the water is much deeper there," Voss said. "If she got a piece of it -- it's a Grade II -- we'd be happy."
The 2-year-olds are getting going so it's not too early to think about Kentucky Derby 146, to be run May 2, 2020.
Maven became the first of American Pharoah's progeny to win in the United States as he scored at first asking Friday at Aqueduct. The Triple Crown winner had his first-anywhere winner April 13 at Naas in Ireland when Monarch of Egypt got his career off on the right foot for trainer Aidan O'Brien and his owners, Peter Brant and the Coolmore "lads". Maven was bred by his trainer, Wesley Ward and is owned by Richard Ravin.
Ward said he had hoped to be the first to collect a win for American Pharoah but told The Blood-Horse, "I'll always be second to Aiden. He's the greatest."
Ward, a pioneer in American incursions to Royal Ascot, said he hopes to take Maven to the Group 2 Norfolk Stakes at the Royal meeting June 20.
In other action:
Bigger Picture contributed to the cloudy picture that is the American turf landscape with a 1/2-length upset victory in Saturday's $250,000 Grade II Dixiana Elkhorn Stakes at Keeneland. The 8-year-old Badge of Silver gelding raced into the stretch in mid-pack, accelerated four-wide to challenge and got to the lead in the final sixteenth. Red Knight and the favorite, Zulu Alpha, each held a brief lead and finished second and third, respectively. Bigger Picture, with Tyler Gaffalione in the irons, ran 1 1/2 miles on yielding turf in 2:32.00.
The U.S. Turf division has been seeking a consistent leader and Bigger Picture, to date, has not been it. He won the Grade I United Nations at Monmouth Park in 2017 but, since then, his only victories have been in back-to-back runnings of the Grade III John B. Connally Turf Stakes at Lone Star Park. He finished seventh in the Grade II Pan American at Gulfstream Park in his most recent start. "I think he was compromised by the slow pace, " said winning trainer Mike Maker.
Clint Maroon was seeing green from the go in Saturday's $100,000 Woodhaven Stakes for 3-year-olds at Aqueduct. First out of the gate under Irad Ortiz Jr., the British-bred Oasis Dream gelding never looked back and won by 4 lengths. The favorite, Forty Under, was best of the rest, 5 3/4 lengths ahead of Empire of War. Clint Maroon ran 1 1/16 miles on yielding turf in 1:45.79 in his stakes debut.
"Our plan was to be second, but he broke out of there really sharp, so I took the lead," Ortiz said. "We went to 'Plan B' and it worked out well. We went slow fractions and he was going very relaxed. When I asked him to run, he responded very well."
Filly & Mare Turf
Feel Glorious rallied from last of five in Friday's $100,000 Memories of Silver Stakes at Aqueduct and outfinished the favorite, Blowout, winning by ahead from that rival. Le Feve made the early going and finished third, followed by Aunt Hattie and Her Royal Highness, the only American-bred horse in the field. Feel Glorious, a British-bred by Bated Breath, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm going in 1:42.13 for jockey Eric Cancel.
"She'll be eligible for other stakes coming up," said Christophe Lorieul, assistant to Feel Glorious' trainer, Christophe Clement. "The question for us was the mile and a sixteenth today, which we were not sure would be her best distance, but she proved today that she can handle it."
Friday's $100,000 Grade III Hilliard Lyons-Baird Doubledogdare Stakes at Keeneland was significantly deflated by four scratches, including the morning-line favorite, Blue Prize, and former Mexican champ Jala Jala. Of the five left, the prime beneficiary was Electric Forest. The 4-year-old Curlin filly led from the start and won by 3/4 length over Go Google Yourself. Promise of Spring was third, reflecting the slow start of the season itself, and Golden Award and Moonlit Garden finished the parade. Electric Forest, with Jose Ortiz in the irons, got 1 1/16 miles on a sloppy track in 1:45.25.
"She broke really sharp, and that helped me a lot out of the one hole, Ortiz said. "With the track being speed-favoring, I wasn't afraid to go out there ... When we passed the sixteenth pole, she made the lead and stayed there. The filly gave me another run."
Cistron, moving from turf to the main track, had things all his own way in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Kona Gold Stakes at Santa Anita. Leading from the start, Cistron won by 5 1/4 lengths with All Out Blitz second, Dr. Dorr third and the favorite, Kanthaka fourth. Zatter completed the order of finish. Cistron, a 5-year-old son of The Factor, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:16.33 with Victor Espinoza calling the shots.
Owner Kosta Hronis said the suspension of racing down the hillside turf course contributed to the decision to try Cistron on the dirt. "He always works nice on the dirt and he seem to like this course," Hronis said.
Across the waves:
Too Darn Hot, once the hot favorite for the Qipco 2,000 Guineas, will miss that race as he continues to recover from a shin issue, trainer John Gosden announced Saturday. The Dubawi colt, owned by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, was the 2018 European champion juvenile with four wins, culminating in the Dewhurst. Gosden said Too Darn Hot is doing well but missed too much time to make the first British Classic. Instead, he said, the Dante Stakes at York and the Irish 2,000 Guineas are alternate targets.
Speaking of hot favorites:
The two hot favorites went one up, one down in Friday's All-Weather Championships Finals Day at Lingfield Park. Kachy romped to a 3 1/4-lengths score in the Sprint by Wissahickon was soundly beaten into second in the Easter Classic. A rundown on the day's activity, which played out before a sold-out crowd of 10,000:
Kachy, under Richard Kingscote, was away sharply in the Betway All-Weather Sprint Championship and never looked back. The 6-year-old Kyllachy gelding was 3 1/2 lengths in front of runner-up George Bowen. Merhoob was third. Kachy scored his third win of the season sans loss. The 6 furlongs took 1:09.55.
"Kachy has to be a better horse this year," said trainer Tom Dascombe, referring to his second-place finish in last year's Championship. "He ran today off his highest ever rating of 112 and broke track record here last time. Just everything about you makes you think he is a better horse. It doesn't really make up for last year as I would rather have won both. It is just great that we have won."
Dascombe said the Group 2 Temple Stakes at Haydock May 25 "is the obvious target next."
The Betway Easter Classic Middle-Distance Championship, the day's feature, was a different story. Matterhorn charged to the lead with a quarter mile to run and built a lead that was simply too high a mountain to climb for the favorite, Wissahickon. Matterhorn, a 4-year-old Raven's Pass colt trained by Mark Johnston, ran on to win by 7 lengths. Wissahickon held second by 3/4 length over Pactolus. The 1 1/4 miles went in 2:01.09.
"Once he started running on the All-Weather and winning we always had this race in mind, and that was great to see," Johnston said of Matterhorn's effort. "He'll have to go into Pattern company mow, and it might be a different story, but we'll have to find out. I don't think grass will be a worry."
Watersmeet sank the chances of the day's other odds-on favorite, Amade, rallying wide after a slow start to take the Betway All-Weather Marathon Championship by 2 1/4 lengths over that one. Spark Plug was third. Watersmeet, an 8-year-old Dansili gelding, also trained by Johnston, ran 2 miles in 3:21.47 with Joe Fanning in the irons.
Goring hit the lead inside the final furlong in the Sun Racing All-Weather Apprentice Championship and got home first by 1/2 length over Raucus. Yet another favorite faltered -- in this instance, Breathless Times, who reported seventh. Goring, a 7-year-old German-bred gelding, qualified by racing seven times over all-weather tracks during the season, albeit without a win before Friday.
Heavenly Holly made all in the Ladbrokes All-Weather Fillies' and Mares' Championship, then coasted home first by 1 length over Island of Life. Yet another favorite bit the dust as Rasima finished last of 12. Heavenly Holly, a 4-year-old Shamardal filly, ran 7 furlongs in 1:25.16 with Ryan Moore up for conditioner Hugo Palmer.
In the Sun Racing All-Weather Mile Championships, Oh This Is Us outsprinted the favorite, Indyco, winning by 3/4 length. The 6-year-old Acclamation entire fan got home in 1:35.26 with Tom Marquand up. Richard Hannon, who trains Oh This Is Us, commented, "There are a lot of good races for him but we might avoid the really massive ones and tiptoe around. But you never know with him. On his day he is capable of winning anything, as he tries so hard."
Other than Kachy, the only winning favorite on the day was Pizzicato, victorious in the Ladbrokes 3-year-old All-Weather Championship. The Italian-bred gelding by Dabirsim qualified by racing on French all-weather tracks. Each of the Finals Day races had at least one French representative, illustrative of the increasing international reach of the program.
Castelvecchio made up a huge deficit in the final half-mile and outfinished the favorite, Loving Gaby, by 1 1/2 lengths in Saturday's Group 1 Moet & Chandon Champagne Stakes for 2-year-olds at Randwick. Lady Lupino opened a massive lead through the early furlongs but tired to finish well back in third. Castelvecchio, with Joshua Parr aboard, ran 1,600 meters in 1:33.31, scoring his third win from five starts. The Dundeel colt was third in the other two outings.
Pierata found just enough in the final 100 meters to score a minor upset over Osborne Bulls in Saturday's Group 1 Schweppes All-Aged Stakes at Randwick, finishing nearly 1/2 length in front of that rival. Siege of Quebec was nearly 1 length farther in arrears in third. Pierata, a 4-year-old son of Pierro, ran 1,400 meters in 1:20.64 for jockey Tommy Berry. It was his first win since the Group 3 Sydney Stakes back in October.
Back in North America, around the ovals:
Sister Peacock led the way, shooed off a rival midway through and went on to win Sunday's $120,000 (Canadian) Star Shoot Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by 1 1/4 lengths over Missmizz. Power Gal ran evenly to finish third.
Shakopee Town ran to the lead in the stretch in Saturday's $150,000 (Canadian) Whimsical Stakes for fillies and mares and opened up to win by 3 1/4 lengths. Sly Beauty was second, 1 1/4 lengths to the good of Zestina. Shakopee Town, a 4-year-old Jersey Town filly, ran 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:09.55 under Alan Garcia.
Tapit Star attended the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Rainbow Stakes for 3-year-old Arkansas-breds, edged to the lead at the eighth pole and ran on to win by 2 lengths. Young Bull was along to finish second, 1 1/2 lengths in front of the early leader, Rusty Cage. Tapit Star, a Double Irish colt, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.31 with Walter De La Cruz in the irons.
Bye Bye J collared the pacesetter at the top of the lane in Saturday's $100,000 Rainbow Miss for 3-year-old, state-bred fillies and waved bye-bye to her 6 rivals, winning by 1 3/4 lengths, ridden out. The ominously named Tiger Bait was second, another 1 3/4 lengths in front of All About Clara. Bye Bye J, a daughter of Uncaptured, finished in 1:10.70 with Ricardo Santana Jr. riding.
A massive stakes card Saturday, fast and firm:
Laki came from just off the pace in the $100,000 Frank Whiteley Jr. Stakes to win by 3 1/2 lengths over the favorite, Lewisfield. Rockinn On Bye was another 3 3/4 lengths up the track in third. Laki, a 6-year-old Cuba gelding, ran 6 furlongs in 1:08.47 with Horacio Karamanos in the irons.
Dirty rallied from well back in the field in the $100,000 King Leatherbury Stakes at 5 1/2 furlongs on the grass and surged by Completed Pass in the final strides, winning by a neck. The favorite, Proforma, was third after a troubled start. Dirty, a 4-year-old Maclean's Music colt, got home in 1:00.65 -- just 0.14 second shy of the course record -- with Jorge Vargas Jr. up.
Ms Locust Point, the even-money favorite, had a big lead in the stretch in the $100,000 Primonetta Stakes for fillies and mares and needed every step of it as Cairenn fell just a nose short with a late effort. It was another 2 lengths back to Startwithsilver. Ms Locust Point, a 5-year-old Dialed In mare, ran 6 furlongs in 1:10.11 with Vargas riding.
Secret Message put a nose in front of the favorite, La Moneda, at just the right time in the $100,000 Dahlia Stakes for fillies and mares, winning by that nose. Viva Vegas was closing, too, but finished third, another neck behind. Secret Message, a 4-year-old daughter of Hat Trick, ran 1 mile on the grass in 1:35.25 with Trevor McCarthy riding.
Irish Strait allowed Real Story to get on with it in the $100,000 Henry S. Clark Stakes on the turf, then hooked that one in a stretch duel before winning by a neck. O Dionysus came flying late to get third, just another nose in arrears. Irish Strait, a 7-year-old English Channel gelding, finished the 1 mile in 1:33.94 with Vargas up.
Newly minted shone like a bright penny in Saturday's $200,000 Fifth Avenue Division of the New York Stallion Stakes for eligible 3-year-old fillies, dueling for the lead, then kicking away to win by 7 1/2 lengths. Kid Is Frosty was best of the rest, finishing 2 1/4 lengths ahead of Bangle Gal. Newly Minted, a daughter of Central Banker, got 6 1/2 furlongs on a sloppy track in 1:18.81 under Jose Lezcano.
Funny Guy outfinished the favorite, Blindwillie McTell, in the final yards of the $200,000 Times Square Division of the NYSS for eligible 3-year-olds, winning by 3/4 length. It was 6 3/4 lengths more back to Thorny Tale in third. Funny Guy, a Big Brown colt, finished in 1:18.29 with Rajiv Maragh in the irons.
A Bit of Both led the way in Saturday's $75,000 Game Face Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at 7 furlongs on the fast main track and won by 3 lengths, ridden out by Paco Lopez. Karama and Getting Warmer filled the trifecta slots. A Bit of Both, a Paynter filly, finished in 1:23.77.
Gladiator King worked hard for the lead in Saturday's $75,000 Roar Stakes for 3-year-old, opened a daylight advantage and hung on gamely to win by a nose over the favorite, Garter and Tie. Café Du Monde was third. Gladiator King, a Curlin colt, finished 7 furlongs in 1:23.86 with Leonel Reyes in the irons.
Malpais led from the start in Saturday's $100,000 Robert Hilton Memorial for 3-year-olds and carried on, winning by 4 1/4 lengths over Admiral Lynch. Federal Case was a neck behind that one in third. Malpais, a Hard Spun colt, negotiated 7 furlongs over the fast track in 1:25.15 with Gabriel Saez in the irons.
Divine Mischief, a 13-1 chance, did some mischief to the chalk players in Saturday's $100,000 Dance to Bristol Stakes for fillies and mares, leading and holding on to win by a neck over Isotope. Lake Ponchatrain was third. Divine Mischief, a 4-year-old Into Mischief filly, ran 7 furlongs in 1:25.61 for jockey J. Acosta.
Clubman rallied four-wide from well back to take a late lead in the $75,000 Russell Road Stakes and went on to win by 1 length over Cool Arrow. Clubman, a 5-year-old Not For Love gelding, ran 7 furlongs in 1:24.56 with Xavier Perez at the controls.
Vic's Pick was along late to collect the winner's share in the $50,000 Coin Collector Stakes for state-bred 3-year-olds, running 4 1/2 furlongs in 52.31 seconds with Luis Batista in the irons. In the filly equivalent, Parisian Diva had some traffic trouble in the $50,000 Its Binn Too Long Stakes but found room and went on to score by 2 lengths in 52.17.
Anna's Bandit cleared the field in the stretch run of the $50,000 Original Gold Stakes for West Virginia-bred fillies and mares, winning by 4 3/4 lengths. Aaron's Tap was in front start to finish in the $50,000 Confucius Say Stakes for state-breds and held well to win by 2 1/4 lengths in 1:25.38.
Lone Star Park
Ima Discreet Lady battled to the lead in Thursday's $50,000 Bluebonnet Stakes for Texas-bred fillies and mares, then easily held safe the late bid of the favorite, Shes Our Fastest, winning by 2 1/4 lengths. True Confession finished third. Ima Discreet Lady, a 3-year-old daughter of Discreet Cat, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a good track in 1:18.42 with C.J. McMahon up.
Performance Review rallied from last of nine to capture Sunday's $75,000 Neon Desert Handicap for fillies and mares, winning by 2 lengths over Baydar. The favorite, Kram, settled for third. Performance Review, a 6-year-old Eskendereya mare, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:16.43 with Santiago Gonzalez up.