By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
In recent years, the nine-furlong, $500,000 Clark Handicap (gr. I) has been won by such well-known horses as Blame (2009), Wise Dan (2011), and Will Take Charge (2013.) This year’s field might turn out to lack the star power of years past (only one grade I winner has been entered), but then again—who knows? There are a number of lightly-raced, up-and-coming young runners entered in the Clark, and you never know which one might progress into a champion of 2015. So let’s start handicapping!
Among the nine runners, Departing is the morning line favorite at 3-1. I find this interesting, for as talented a horse as he may be—and you don’t win over $1.5 million without talent!—he has lost his last four starts, all at the same nine-furlong distance of the Clark. In my opinion, nine furlongs is a bit beyond Departing’s best distance, as he tends to lose ground from the eighth pole to the finish while clocking the distance in rather slow times. I discussed this in greater depth last month when Departing ran in the Fayette Stakes (gr. II) at Keeneland, a race in which Departing led by a length at the eighth pole before being passed in deep stretch by Pick of the Litter. If Departing does indeed go off as the favorite in the Clark, I’ll be eager to try and beat him once again.
One obvious contender to pull off an upset is Pick of the Litter, who will be back to face Departing once again. But while he did win the Fayette, he took advantage of a ground-saving trip to do so, and that was at Keeneland, which seemed to generally favor closers (like Pick of the Litter) over speed/pace pressers (like Departing) during the fall meet. This, coupled with the fact that Departing beat Pick of the Litter two starts back in the nine-furlong Homecoming Classic, leads me to think that Pick of the Litter is not the best play on top, especially if he drops from morning line odds of 9-2.
There are two horses that really intrigue me in the Clark, the first and foremost being Hoppertunity. The three-year-old colt, who ran second to California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), went to the sidelines right before the Kentucky Derby with a hoof bruise and ankle chip, but returned on October 29th to finish a strong second in a seven-furlong allowance race at Santa Anita Park. Personally, I thought Hoppertunity was among the best three-year-olds in the country this spring, and I thought he was sitting on a huge effort in the Derby. He should appreciate the stretch-out to nine furlongs in his second start off the layoff, and he has fired off a trio of sharp workouts in preparation for this race. I believe Hoppertunity is poised to win his first grade I this Friday.
The other horse I really like is Easter Gift, who finished a strong third in this race last year behind Will Take Charge and Game On Dude. After a long layoff, he returned this summer with a pair of twenty-length losses in the Monmouth Cup (gr. II) and Alydar Stakes, but rebounded last time out to win an 8.5-furlong allowance race at Belmont on October 12th. He seems to be rounding back into form at just the right time, and while he may not win, he looks like an intriguing candidate for the exotics at around 8-1.
The Clark also marks the graded stakes return of Constitution, who won the Florida Derby (gr. I) back in March before going to the sidelines. Although he was beaten by Easter Gift in his return on October 12th, he should gain some fitness off that effort and could definitely be in the mix as well. Unfortunately, thanks to his reputation, he’s unlikely to offer much higher odds than 7-2, and that seems a bit low under the circumstances.
I should also take a moment to mention Prayer for Relief. He has been competing admirably in graded stakes company all year long, and his 6-1 morning line price is enticing. But it’s worth noting that he is 0-for-4 at Churchill Downs, with some of his worst efforts coming at this track. A perfect example came last year, when Prayer for Relief—after winning the Cornhusker Handicap (gr. III) and Governor’s Cup in impressive fashion during the summer—went to Churchill Downs and was crushed in the Homecoming Classic and Clark Handicap. About three weeks after the Clark, he rebounded with a 6 ¼-length win in the Tenacious Handicap at Fair Grounds.
So to summarize, I like Hoppertunity as my top selection, with respect to Departing, Easter Gift, and Pick of the Litter for the exotics.
Who do you like in the Clark?