The $500,000, Grade 2 Lukas Classic Stakes Saturday at Churchill Downs may not be a qualifying race for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic five weeks later, but it certainly has implications because the top three contenders could be be running in that race depending on how they perform in this one. Hot Rod Charlie leads the six-horse field in career earnings with over $5.2 million. The hard-trying colt, who has 12 in-the-money finishes from 15 dirt races in his career, just missed finishing second by a head last out in the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes.
Art Collector has won 10 of 19 career starts and banked over $2.3 million. He enters the Lukas Classic off a win in the Grade 2 Charles Town Classic Stakes, which he also won in 2021. Happy Saver (earnings over $1.1 million) has finished second in three straight top races since returning from a five month layoff in May, including the aforementioned Whitney where he held off Hot Rod Charlie. The three horses who beat him in those starts – Olympiad, Flightline and Life is Good – are all at the top of the Breeders’ Cup Classic division. King Fury has won four of 14 races in his career and three of those wins have been at Churchill Downs, including the Bourbon Trail Stakes, held at the 1 1/8-mile distance of the Lukas Classic, by 13 lengths last September. He enters this race off a third-place finish in August in the Fort Larned Stakes. Then there’s Rich Strike, who shocked the world at odds of 80.80-1 when winning the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve in May. He’s finished sixth and fourth in two marquee races since then. Rich Strike is the only 3-year-old in the field and returns to the track which made him famous. Chess Chief rounds out the group. His last win came in December 2021in the Tenacious Stakes and he has not finished better than third in five races since then.
Hot Rod Charlie tries every time he races, as he’s not been worse than third in 13 of his last 14 races. He’s won five of those 14 and was beaten by inches in another two. Last year, Hot Rod Charlie won the TVG.com Haskell Stakes but was disqualified to seventh for interference. He returned six weeks later to win the Pennsylvania Derby, earning a career best 117 Equibase Speed Figure. After posting a fourth-place finish competing against some of the best in the older dirt male division in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, Hot Rod Charlie missed by a nose in a stakes in California and then to start 2022 shipped overseas, where he won the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 Presented by The Longines Record and finished second in the $12 million Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline. Then, following three months off, he was beaten a head in the Salvator Mile Stakes, earning a new career-best 118 Equibase Speed Figure. In his most recent race, Hot Rod Charlie boosted that number to to 122 in August when he finished third in the Whitney Stakes, as mentioned above. In the Whitney, while he was no match for one of the fastest horses in North America in Life is Good, Hot Rod Charlie was once again tough as nails in the stretch when battling with Happy Saver and coming up a head short of second. He’s on a pattern for more improvement making his third start off the layoff, and as such Hot Rod Charlie appears set to get back into the winner’s circle in the Lukas Classic.
Happy Saver has run against the top three horses in North America on dirt since May, the first being when second to Olympiad in the Alysheba Stakes Presented by Sentient Jet at Churchill Downs in May, although that effort came following five months off. Next in the Hill ‘n’ Dale Metropolitan Handicap in June, Happy Saver was runner-up to divisional leader Flightline, who will be favored in the Breeders’ Cup Classic off his subsequent sensational win in the TVG Pacific Classic Stakes. Finally in his most recent start, Happy Saver finished second to Life Is Good, another elite dirt horse, in the Whitney Stakes. With none of that trio entered in the Lukas Classic, it is likely betting favoritism will fall to Happy Saver, and considering his last Equibase figure (122) is tied for the best by any horse in this field ever, he has every right to succeed.
Art Collector is likely the horse the other five will have to catch in order to win the Lukas Classic as he is the only one truly comfortable leading from the start. That style helped him win his last two races. The first came in the Alydar Stakes in August, following five months off. Then Art Collector won the Charles Town Classic for the second year in a row. Although his win in the Charles Town Classic received a 113 figure – which is well below the 122 earned by Hot Rod Charlie and by Happy Saver in their most recent races – Art Collector earned 121 and 120 figures last summer and fall, one of those coming in the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes a year ago this weekend. This horse could play “come catch me” successfully on Saturday.
The rest of the Lukas Classic field, with their best Equibase Figures, is Chess Chief (105), King Fury (108) and Rich Strike (106).
Hot Rod Charlie