Can Gun Runner Beat His Elders in the Clark?

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

As one of the last grade I races for older horses left to be run in 2016, the $500,000 Clark Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs has drawn a remarkably deep and competitive field, and the nine-furlong event promises to be one of the highlights of a fantastic Thanksgiving week of racing.

One of the keys to deciphering the race is deciding whether Noble Bird is likely to get a clear lead. The five-year-old son of Birdstone has been explosive when able to relax on a lonely lead, winning the Pimlico Special Handicap (gr. III), Lukas Classic, and Fayette Stakes (gr. II) this year when allowed to set his own pace. However, when he's been beaten to the lead or challenged early, he hasn't been nearly as effective, finishing sixth by 12 ¼ lengths in an allowance race, eighth by 13 lengths in the Alysheba Stakes (gr. II), sixth by 18 ¾ lengths in the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I), and fifth by 12 ½ lengths in the Whitney Stakes (gr. I).

There isn't a ton of speed in the Clark Handicap, which bodes well for Noble Bird's chances, but he might still face some pace pressure from Mr. Z, a speedy colt that finished fourth in the Fayette Stakes after conceding the early lead to Noble Bird. However, Mr. Z has been no more than a length off the early lead in seven of his last nine races, and after breezing five furlongs in a bullet 1:00 4/5 on November 20th (substantially faster than his workouts before the Fayette Stakes), I wouldn't be surprised to see Mr. Z burst out of the gate with an eye on taking the lead, which could make things tricky for Noble Bird.

Effinex is another runner with early speed, which he could be forced to use in order to work out a good trip from post position two. He won this race last year after a hard-fought stretch battle, but he was in strong form at the time, having finished second to American Pharoah in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) a few weeks earlier. Although Effinex has run well this year, scoring wins in the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II) and Suburban Handicap (gr. II), he's done his best running when regular rider Mike Smith has been in the saddle, and he's misfired his two starts this year with other jockeys aboard, including a seventh-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic on November 5th.

In the Clark, Effinex will be ridden by Junior Alvarado, and while Alvarado has enjoyed some success with Effinex, guiding him to victory in the 2015 Suburban Handicap (gr. II), Effinex's inconsistency and disappointing efforts in the absence of Mike Smith lead me to think he could be a horse to play against on Saturday, at least for the top spot.

Shaman Ghost will also draw wagering support off his win in the September 3rd Woodward Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga, but he missed an intended start in the Breeders' Cup Classic due to an illness and will enter the Woodward off a lengthy layoff. In addition, the four-horse photo finish in the Woodward (with Shaman Ghost narrowly edging Mubtaahij, Frosted, and Breaking Lucky) suggests that the race might not have been as strong as the winning Beyer of 106 implies, and Mubtaahij, Frosted, and Breaking Lucky all disappointed in their next starts.

For all these reasons, I'm leaning toward Hoppertunity and Gun Runner as my top choices. Hoppertunity won this race in 2014 and was beaten less than a length when second in 2015, rallying hard after a wide trip to fall just short of catching Effinex. Last time out, he was no match for Arrogate and California Chrome in the Breeders' Cup Classic, but missed third place by just a neck while recording his ninth-consecutive triple-digit Beyer speed figure.

After five straight races at ten furlongs, including a win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), Hoppertunity might appreciate a slight cutback in distance for the Clark Handicap. The only question is whether there will be enough pace to set up his late run, and from post position nine, he could be in for a wide trip.

Gun Runner is the only three-year-old in this race, but he has steadily improved through a busy season and ran a huge race in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I), making an early move into a fast pace to take the lead in the homestretch before tiring slightly to finish second behind Tamarkuz. He has an excellent record at Churchill Downs, including a strong third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), and after wide trips in his last several starts, he's drawn perfectly in post position one and should be able to work out a ground-saving trip. He's shown repeatedly that he doesn't mind racing inside of horses and pouncing from just off the pace (remember his fantastic trips in the Risen Star Stakes and Louisiana Derby?), and with a similar trip on Friday, I think he can take just enough of a step forward to edge his older rivals in the Clark Handicap and pick up his first Grade 1 victory.

If you're looking for a big longshot to hit the board, Hawaakom might be worth considering. A veteran of thirty starts, Hawaakom has shown improving form during the second half of 2016 and was beaten just 1 ½ lengths by Noble Bird in the Lukas Classic here at Churchill Downs. In a race where some of the main contenders have a history of being inconsistent, Hawaakom has been just the opposite, finishing in the trifecta twenty times, including eight of his ten races this year. With just 116 pounds on his back, Hawaakom's consistency might be enough to get him in the superfecta at a fantastic price.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Clark Handicap?


J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website

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