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CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- Defending champion Game on Dude and Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider's Lea -- the winners of the only two Grade 1 handicap division races run in the United States so far this year -- headline the list of probables and 36 nominees for the $1,500,000 Charles Town Classic (G2) coming up on April 19 at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races.
Should the matchup on the Charles Town oval between the three-time Santa Anita Handicap (G1) winner and the 2014 Donn Handicap (G1) champion, both trained by Hall of Fame conditioners, come to fruition as expected, it sets up as a blockbuster early-season matchup with the top spot in the division potentially at stake.
Trained by Bob Baffert, Game on Dude will be contesting the country's richest race outside of the Triple Crown and Kentucky Derby for the third time and will look to join Researcher as the only two-time Charles Town Classic winners. Second behind Duke of Mischief in 2011, the popular gelding returned to West Virginia in 2013 and took the Classic by a half-length over Clubhouse Ride and Ron the Greek. And much like he did in 2013, the now seven-year-old will come into the race off a score in the Big 'Cap -- this time one that allowed him to become the first three time winner in the history of the storied race.
Game on Dude will continue to prepare for the Charles Town Classic at his base in Southern California with plans calling for him to ship to West Virginia the Tuesday prior to the race. In addition to Game on Dude, Baffert also has Grade 1 winner Shakin it Up and Cat Burglar nominated.
Having been kept on the turf for much of his career by trainer Bill Mott, Lea has proven to be a monster in his last two starts on the dirt, taking the Hal's Hope (G3) by 3 1/4 lengths and the Donn by 1 1/2 lengths over fellow Charles Town Classic nominee and last year's three-year-old Eclipse Award winner Will Take Charge. Now a perfect 3-for-3 in his only dirt tries at a mile or longer, the son of First Samurai has stamped himself as a formidable player in this year's handicap division following his efforts at Gulfstream Park this winter.
With one-quarter of the nominees, Todd Pletcher will be trying to win his second Charles Town Classic, having captured the race in 2012 with Caixa Eletronica. The nine nominations coming from Pletcher's barn are topped by 2013 Belmont Stakes (G1) winner Palace Malice, who is a perfect 2-for-2 this year including a powerful 4 3/4 length victory in the New Orleans Handicap (G2) on March 29.
Nominations for the undercard stakes, including the $200,000 Sugar Maple presented by CANTER Mid-Atlantic and $100,000 Robert Hilton Memorial presented by Budweiser close on Wednesday.
The April 19 Charles Town Classic card has a special first post of 5 p.m., with the featured Classic scheduled to go postward at 10:30 p.m.