CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- Trainer Todd Pletcher said earlier in the week he thought Stanford was a good fit for the Grade 2 Charles Town Classic because of his tactical speed and because he was a handy horse who would be able to negotiate the tighter turns of this six-furlong track.
Check, and check.
Stanford rolled to the lead under Javier Castellano at the outset of the $1.25 million Classic and was never headed. Although dogged throughout by a determined Page McKenney, Stanford was able to open a clear lead entering the stretch and ultimately scored by two lengths. It was another 1-3/4 lengths back from Page McKenney to Donworth, who had yet another eventful trip. Imperative finished fourth, a neck behind Donworth.
Castellano said when Stanford broke so well, he knew what he wanted to do.
"It didn't look like there wasn't much speed in the race," Castellano said. "I liked the way he did this today."
Stanford set reasonable fractions of 24.75 seconds, 48.86, and 1:13.75. He completed the 1-1/8 miles in 1:50.55. Stanford paid $9.40 as the third choice in the 10-horse field.
Stanford was purchased for $550,000 at the 2014 Barretts March sale of 2-year-olds and races for Stonestreet Stables and Susan Magnier. The Classic was the second stakes victory for Stanford, who won the 1-1/16-mile Long Branch Stakes at Monmouth Park last summer as a 3-year-old.
Stanford came into the Classic off a close second-place finish to his stablemate Blofeld in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap, a one-turn mile. Pletcher said he is very happy with how Stanford has progressed at 4.
"I feel he's really improved for us this year," Pletcher said. "He's a very versatile horse. He's run well for us at multiple distances."
Pletcher said he would wait several days to see how Stanford comes out of the race before making a decision on where he will start next but mentioned the Met Mile on June 11, Belmont Stakes Day, as a possibility.
The Charles Town track was kind to speed on both Friday and Saturday, and when Page McKenney broke alertly, jockey Horacio Karamanos made a decision very similar to that of Castellano.
Karamanos, who has now ridden Page McKenney in 13 straight races, placed him right off Stanford's hip, where he stayed until the third turn. Although Stanford was able to spurt clear entering the stretch, Page McKenney was still digging in at the wire.
Owner Adam Staple and trainer Mary Eppler claimed Page McKenney out of a non-winners-of-two for $16,000 at Penn National in July 2013. He has since won 15 races and earlier this year surpassed $1 million in earnings. He is stabled with Eppler at Pimlico Race Course.
Staple and Eppler have pointed Page McKenney to the Charles Town Classic for months. They had planned to run him last month in the Harrison Johnson Stakes at Laurel Park but the race failed to fill and Eppler trainer him up to the race off a 10-week layoff.
"No matter what I do with him, he always shows up," Eppler said. "Distance doesn't matter. The time between races doesn't matter. He showed up again today."
Eppler said she will now point Page McKenney to the Grade 3, $300,000 Pimlico Special, a 1-3/16-mile race on Preakness Day, May 21.
"Last year we were third in this race and second in the Pimlico Special," Eppler said of the Classic. "This year we were second here, and hopefully we can win the Special."
Donworth, the 2-1 favorite in the Classic, came into the race off a rough trip in the Santa Anita Handicap, a race in which he was rank and clipped heels. Trainer Doug O'Neill hoped jockey Mario Gutierrez would be able to take a light hold of Donworth and keep him in the clear Saturday, but he didn't break well.
Gutierrez was forced to restrain him briefly after the start and then took him outside horses. Donworth was four wide on the first two turns, rallied after the top pair on the third turn but lacked the needed punch in the stretch.
He held third by a neck over 3-1 Imperative, who had defeated Game On Dude in the 2014 Classic and was second last year to Moreno, who set a track record of 1:48.81.
Imperative finished willingly but was too far back early to make an impact in the race.