Researcher just might be back to defend his title in the Charles Town Classic, after all.
The 7-year-old Virginia-bred gelding, winner of each of the previous two Classics at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races and Slots, turned in his first workout of the year on Feb. 24 at Laurel Park (the fastest of 23 recorded at the four-furlong distance). That's noteworthy, since until recently Researcher appeared out of the picture for running in the $1 million Charles Town Classic (West Virginia's richest race) on April 16.
Owner Zohar Ben-Dov's Kinross Corporation, which acquired Researcher from the estate of former owner Herman Greenberg just prior to last year's Classic, promptly pulled the accomplished runner out of trainer Jeff Runco's barn and embarked on the unusual transition to jump racing -- unusual, considering Researcher had just beaten a dazzling field of competitors including eventual Hollywood Gold Cup winner Awesome Gem and Hawthorne Gold Cup winner Redding Colliery over the 1 1/8-mile distance.
Researcher's steeplechase career, it appears, has yet to take off. That has prompted Ben-Dov to take another shot at the Classic.
"The goal is to get him there," Ben-Dov told Charles Town officials. "We hope to run him once in a prep race before then and bring him back in April."
While Researcher may make his Charles Town return after all, it appears it won't be under Runco's watch this time. Training duties have been transferred to Kinross steeplechase trainer Neil Morris.
"We have an all-weather track here, similar to the one in Kentucky," Ben-Dov said. "He's been doing well here and we sent him to Laurel for his first work."
Researcher is no sure thing to even draw a post for the race. The first preference for the Classic is given to graded stakes winners in the last two years, with the second preference going to those with the highest amount of graded stakes earnings since April 16, 2009. The Classic will be run as a Grade III race for the first time this year, and Researcher's year-long layoff kept his earnings low over the two-year period.
Hopefully, the track will find a way to ensure that one of Charles Town's all-time most popular runners has a chance for a second title defense.