Betting a Sophomore in the Clark Stakes

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

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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 final turn.

Maxfield's career-best 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?


Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contests page—there's a new challenge every week! (Please note: older contest entries can be found here.)

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.

Recent Posts

More Blogs