Four years on, it's still the Age of Imperative

Even without a calendar, the signs of April are obvious. The Cubbies are losing games again. The calla lilies have been in glorious bloom. And Imperative is heading to West Virginia for the Charles Town Classic.

It is hard to imagine a world without both Imperative and the Classic. The race was inaugurated in the spring of 2009, shortly before he was conceived in Kentucky through the breeding of champion Bernardini to the 15-year-old Call Her, a daughter of Caller I.D.

By the time baby Imperative hit the ground in May 2010, the first two runnings of the Classic had been won by a fairy-tale horse named Researcher, who was once a $5,000 giveaway. Researcher ended up winning $1.3 million.

Imperative was one of hundreds of well-bred Darley Stable yearlings in April 2011 when the Charles Town Classic went to Duke of Mischief over Game On Dude and Tizway. A year later, our hero was just learning the ropes as an unraced 2-year-old under Eoin Harty in California when the Classic was won by the old pro Caixa Eletronica, with Duke of Mischief second.

A Thoroughbred must be 4 before he is allowed to tackle the three sharp turns of Charles Town's six-furlong oval in the 1 1/8-mile Classic. Anyway, in the spring of 2013, the 3-year-old version of Imperative was still busy trying to win a maiden race, while Game On Dude returned to West Virginia to beat fellow Californian Clubhouse Ride for the million-dollar payday.

Little did The Dude know that the Age of Imperative was about to begin -- at least in West Virginia. In 2014, Game On Dude ran hard in his defense of his Classic title, but he was no match for Imperative and Kent Desormeaux, winners by 1 1/2 lengths at 26-1.

By then, Imperative was running for trainer George Papaprodromou and owner Kenji Morinaga, who bought him from Darley. They returned to West Virginia in 2015 to defend and left with heads held high and a fat check for second money to the speedy Moreno. If horses could talk (they can't, right?), Imperative would have mumbled something like, "I'll be back," and no one would have batted an eye.

That was Imperative's final start for Papaprodromou. When the horse resurfaced for the 2015 Pacific Classic, he was in the barn of Richard Baltas. He was no match for Beholder that day -- nobody was -- but by the time Imperative was beaten a dirty nose by Hoppertunity in the 2016 San Antonio Stakes, it was clear that he was on his game. He went on to finish fourth in his third trip to Charles Town, beaten four lengths by Stanford.

To date, Imperative has taken $1,342,500 out of the West Virginia economy. Bob Hess trains him now, and he sees no reason why the 7-year-old warrior can't add considerably to that total when he meets Stanford again on Saturday for a purse of $1.25 million.

Hess came into the Imperative picture after Ron Paolucci bought the horse as a possible Pegasus World Cup participant, but he didn't make the field. As a consolation, Imperative defeated Stanford by a head in the Poseidon Stakes on the Pegasus undercard.

The $238,000 that Imperative earned in the Poseidon was about the same as the $250,000 he could have made by finishing up the track against Arrogate, and it looked a lot better. Stanford came back to win a minor stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, while Imperative tried the Santa Anita Handicap and failed miserably.

"He lost a front shoe leaving the gate that day," Hess said this week before heading to West Virginia. "When he went by the first time, his stride was so choppy I knew we were done."

Imperative's feet had been an issue anyway. Hess said Baltas had the horse wearing glue-on shoes, but the hoof walls had improved enough to try conventional plates, which he wore in his Poseidon victory. Now, the glue-on shoes have returned, along with a change of scenery.

"His feet were getting beat up from the firmer surfaces on the West Coast," Hess said. "Ron and I decided to get him out of here after the Handicap and sent him to Keeneland. We utilized the synthetic training track there for his gallops, and he's had two nice works on the main track since he's been there."

Paolucci has tried to surround the Charles Town race with War Story and Cautious Giant as well, and for good measure secured the services of Javier Castellano on Imperative.

"Javier worked him at Keeneland and was very impressed with the horse's demeanor," Hess said. "He's an elegant, classy horse. Very spry. He thinks he's a yearling. He's been in Barn 1 at Keeneland, close to where they have the tailgate parties on the hill. He's checking it out all day long, wanting to go party with the kids."

Inheriting a classy but well-used horse like Imperative late in his 6-year-old season holds no guarantee for success. The cumulative effects of minor injuries adds up, and the wear and tear of training takes its toll.

"The fact that Eoin Harty had him as a young horse and protected him as a kid, he's reaping the rewards of that treatment now at age 7," Hess said. "He's as healthy and happy as he could be, so I have no doubt he's still got some very good races to run."