Art Collector is the 5/2 morning-line favorite for Friday’s Grade 2 Charles Town Classic at Hollywood Casino at Charles Races. And yes, it’s strange to read one of 2020’s top 3-year-olds is running in West Virginia and not in Saratoga this weekend.

Art Collector-Charles Town Classic
One-time A-list 3-year-old Art Collector won the Alydar Stakes at Saratoga for his first win in nearly a year. He travels to West Virginia, where he’s the 5/2 favorite for Friday’s Grade 2 Charles Town Classic. (Image: NYRA)

Art Collector’s path to the starting gate for the $800,000, 1 1/8-mile, three-turn test isn’t one oft-traveled by one-time A-list sophomores. But, when your form inexplicably disappears and you change trainers, detours come with the territory.

This territory is unfamiliar ground for the son of the late Bernardini. The Charles Town Classic is the marquee event on Friday’s 13-race card that provides the richest day in West Virginia racing. And it’s not every day you’re turned loose on a bullring-style, three-turn track.

None of this resembles Art Collector’s last go-round. That came at Saratoga in the Aug. 6 Alydar Stakes. That run reminded everyone why Art Collector was atop many betting tickets for last fall’s Preakness Stakes. The 4-year-old nearly wired the field, turning aside a pesky Night Ops for a 1 ½-length victory that came with a career-best 110 Equibase Speed Figure.

Art Collector returns to the board

That was Art Collector’s first win in 362 days, or since he manhandled the Ellis Park Derby last August for his fourth consecutive victory. This made him a popular Kentucky Derby choice before then-trainer Tommy Drury Jr. scratched him with a hoof issue during Derby week.

In the Preakness, Art Collector was more than a dark-horse; he was the 2.40/1 second-favorite behind Derby winner Authentic. But Art Collector never fired, finishing a distant fourth, 10 lengths behind winner Swiss Skydiver.

From there, it was off to Keeneland, where Art Collector hung up a dismal eighth in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. Drury gave him seven months off, then brought him back in June for the Black-Type Kelly’s Landing at Churchill Downs. That produced an uninspiring sixth as the 1.20/1 favorite – along with the end of owner Bruce Lunsford’s considerable patience.

Hall of Famer Mott welcomes his new charge

Lunsford moved Art Collector to Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott’s Saratoga-based barn. Mott put Art Collector in the Alydar as the 9/5 favorite against such horses as Math Wizard, Jesus’ Team, and Night Ops. The results inspired Mott to bring Art Collector south on three weeks rest.

“We’re glad to have the opportunity to have a horse like him in the barn,” Mott told Charles Town. “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.”

A further sign that Art Collector may be back for keeps is who’s riding him: Luis Saez. Saratoga’s leading rider this meet is taking a Friday detour to take Art Collector’s reins.

Charles Town Classic is a proving ground for this field

Elsewhere in the 10-horse Charles Town Classic field, you find other horses with plenty to prove. There’s 3/1 Warrior’s Charge, who hasn’t won since winning the Grade 3 Razorback at Oaklawn Park 18 months ago. He comes in off a gutsy runner-up to Maxfield in the Grade 2 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs.

“I’m not a big instruction giver to begin with,” trainer Brad Cox 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 our horses. Good jocks don’t need instruction and bad ones don’t listen … We have to hopefully get a good trip and hopefully, he likes Charles Town. There are 800,000 reasons to try it.”

There’s Rushie (5/1), complete with Hall of Fame jockey Victor Espinoza coming out from California. After losing the Oaklawn Mile by a nose in April, Rushie slumped to a fourth in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup at Santa Anita and a sixth in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap in July. That convinced trainer Mike McCarthy to send Rushie east for a confidence boost.

“I have no reservations about this. I thought this would be a big year for this horse,” McCarthy said. “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.”

Grade 2 Charles Town Classic/Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. Warrior’s Charge, 3/1 (Florent Geroux/Brad Cox)
  2. Noble Drama, 8/1 (Angel Cruz/David Fawkes)
  3. Rushie, 5/1 (Victor Espinoza/Mike McCarthy)
  4. Bourbon Calling, 15/1 (Brian Hernandez Jr./Ian Wilkes)
  5. Informative, 20/1 (Jose Ferrer/Uriah St. Lewis)
  6. Ny Traffic, 8/1 (Tyler Gaffalione/Saffie Joseph Jr.)
  7. Sleepy Eyes Todd, 6/1 (Ry Eikleberry/Miguel Angel Silva)
  8. Art Collector, 5/2 (Luis Saez/Bill Mott)
  9. Restrainedvengence, 10/1 (Edwin Maldonado/Val Brinkerhoff)
  10. Air Token, 30/1 (J.D. Acosta/Jose Corrales)

There’s another familiar 2020 Triple Crown trail traveler with unfulfilled promise in the field: Ny Traffic (8/1). He comes in off an inexplicable fourth in the Grade 3 Monmouth Cup to Dr. Post, where he was the 1.60/1 favorite. You’d expect those odds after Ny Traffic won a Belmont Park allowance and finished a good second in the Salvator Mile at Monmouth Park to 79/1 Informative.

Speaking of Informative, he’s here at 20/1.

And so is last year’s Charles Town Classic winner, Sleepy Eyes Todd (6/1), who’s trying to be the first horse to defend. He stormed home by 7 ½ lengths last year, prompting his connections to send him to three of the richest races in the world. Sleepy Eyes Todd finished fourth in the Pegasus World Cup, fifth in the Saudi Cup, and 10th in the Dubai World Cup.

Then, his owners dialed the 5-year-old back. Sleepy Eyes Todd hasn’t run since finishing third in a black-type stakes race at Nebraska’s Fonner Park in late April.

The pick: Art Collector. Even in an inconsistent field like this, he’s chalky. But right now, so is Luis Saez in the irons. He’s winning at a 21% clip in the brutally competitive Saratoga meet. That he’s willing to take a day off from the Spa and his riding-title duel with the Ortiz brothers tells you plenty. The hottest rider in the country owns 21 graded-stakes wins in 2021 and gets a horse rounding into form with a Hall of Fame trainer.