By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
While there's plenty of
quality holiday racing on tap this afternoon, the best race of the week falls
on Friday, when Churchill Downs will host the $750,000 Clark S. (G1). The 1 1/8-mile
race has been won in recent years by champions Blame (2009), Wise Dan (2011),
Will Take Charge (2013), and Gun Runner (2016), as well as Preakness S. (G1)
hero Shackleford (2012).
Eight horses have turned out
to contest the 2021 Clark, led by the accomplished #8 Maxfield (6-5). Victorious five times against graded stakes
company, Maxfield unleashed an explosive rally to win the Breeders' Futurity
(G1) as a juvenile and has remained a force to reckon with ever since.
Maxfield has shown a special
affinity for Churchill Downs, where he boasts a perfect 4-for-4 record. His
signature victory over this track came in the Stephen Foster S. (G2) earlier
this summer, when he unleashed a decisive rally around the far turn to swoop
past rivals and score by 3 1/4 lengths. Maxfield skipped the Breeders' Cup
Classic (G1) to specifically target the Clark, which will mark the final start
of his career. Surely the Godolphin homebred is primed for a peak performance
under the Twin Spires?
I'm expecting a strong
showing from Maxfield, but I'm not sure victory is guaranteed. For starters,
Maxfield enters off a pair of defeats, finishing second in both the Whitney S.
(G1) and Woodward S. (G1) on the New York circuit. For another, Maxfield is
facing a deep field of challengers in the Clark, including a speedy
three-year-old who is arguably flying under the radar.
The horse I'm thinking of is
#1 Midnight Bourbon (8-5), who will
seek to join Will Take Charge (2013), Hoppertunity (2014), and Gun Runner
(2016) as the fourth sophomore to win the Clark in the last decade. Midnight
Bourbon has yet to win at the Grade 1 level, but neither had Hoppertunity or
Gun Runner, and this late-season prize might be the perfect opportunity for
Midnight Bourbon to secure a career-defining triumph.
Much like Gun Runner,
Midnight Bourbon has competed with aplomb against elite competition throughout
his three-year-old season. His last four starts have yielded runner-up efforts
in the Preakness S. (G1), Travers S. (G1), and Pennsylvania Derby (G1), and he
surely would have cracked the trifecta in the Haskell S. (G1) if he hadn't
clipped heels and unseated his rider inside the furlong marker.
From a Brisnet Speed rating
perspective, Midnight Bourbon has gotten better throughout the year. In the
Travers—where he carved out the pace before finishing second by a neck against
champion juvenile Essential Quality—Midnight Bourbon posted a 108. He
subsequently matched that figure when second in the Pennsylvania Derby, beaten
only 2 1/4 lengths by Hot Rod Charlie despite getting carried wide off the
Brisnet Speed rating is also a 108, so from a numbers perspective, Midnight
Bourbon and Maxfield enter the Clark on equal terms. But since Midnight Bourbon
is a year younger than Maxfield, the sophomore may have more upside for
improvement. Certainly his recent workouts have been sharp, including a pair of
bullet five-furlong breezes at Churchill Downs in recent weeks.
The depth of this year's
three-year-old division is excellent, and Midnight Bourbon has repeatedly
knocked heads with tough rivals. One more step forward might be all he needs to
land a winning blow against his elders. Throw in the presence of hot jockey
Joel Rosario (a 23% winner at Churchill this meet), and Midnight Bourbon looks
like a formidable contender.
As for the rest of the Clark
contenders, #3 Dr Post (5-1) and #4 Happy Saver (8-1) are logical
candidates for the minor awards. Dr Post finished only a length behind Maxfield
when third in the Woodward, while Happy Saver enters off a runner-up effort in
the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1). But trifecta and superfecta players shouldn't
overlook the chances of #5 King Fury (12-1).
A three-year-old son of
Curlin out of Grade 1 winner Taris, King Fury is bred to improve with maturity
and boasts a near-perfect 3-for-4 record at Churchill Downs. Two starts back,
he obliterated fellow sophomores in the 1 3/16-mile Bourbon Trail S., drawing
off to win by 13 lengths. Subsequently third in Keeneland's Fayette S. (G2)
while debuting against older rivals, King Fury has the potential to nab a
top-four finish while returning to his favorite track.
Now it's your turn! Who do
you like in the Clark?
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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, 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.