Picking an Up-and-Comer in the Clark Stakes

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

The day after Thanksgiving is perhaps best known for its "Black Friday"  holiday sales, but on the horse racing front, it doubles as the day Churchill Downs hosts the prestigious $750,000 Clark S. (G1).

Held over 1 1/8 miles, the Clark dates back to 1875 and has held Grade 1 status since 2010. Over the last 15 years or so, the Clark has simultaneously served as a late-season opportunity for horses to bolster their Eclipse Award credentials (think Will Take Charge) and as a stage for up-and-coming types to foreshadow their success in the year to come (think Blame, Wise Dan, and Gun Runner).

The 2022 Clark features both types of horses among its seven entries. The big name is doubtlessly #4 Rich Strike, the 80-1 upset winner of the Kentucky Derby (G1). Rich Strike was a shocking winner on the first Saturday in May, but he's since reiterated his talent by sandwiching a near-miss defeat against older rivals in the Lukas Classic (G2) between respectable fourth-place finishes in the Travers S. (G1) and Breeders' Cup Classic (G1).

Rich Strike routinely produces a strong stretch rally and should appreciate returning to Churchill Downs, the site of his Kentucky Derby surprise. Both of Rich Strike's career victories have come at Churchill, as did his head defeat in the Lukas Classic. The son of Keen Ice seems to run a bit better under the Twin Spires than anywhere else.

But is Rich Strike a lock to win the Clark? Not necessarily. There isn't a ton of speed in Friday's field, so Rich Strike may be disadvantaged by his stretch-running style. And one of the most exciting up-and-comers is a speed horse who figures to capitalize on a modest pace.

The horse I'm thinking of is #7 West Will Power. The five-year-old son of Preakness S. (G1) winner Bernardini showed some talent in 2021, most notably running second in the Philip H. Iselin S. (G3) behind multiple Grade 1 winner Code of Honor. But West Will Power has upped his game since transferring to the care of two-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox.

West Will Power kicked off his 2022 campaign in the R.A. "Cowboy" Jones S. and ran strongly in defeat, rallying from midfield to finish second by a head against gate-to-wire winner #3 Injunction. That was a solid try off a 10-month layoff, and West Will Power hasn't lost since, wiring a 1 1/8-mile allowance optional claimer at Churchill Downs by 2 3/4 lengths before leading all the way to dominate Keeneland's 1 1/8-mile Fayette S. (G2) by 6 3/4 lengths.

West Will Power's Fayette performance was strong. True, he escaped with an uncontested lead through slow fractions of :25.17, :49.17, and 1:13.93. But West Will Power kicked on sharply down the homestretch, sprinting the final furlong in :12.01 (an excellent fraction on dirt) to beat graded stakes winners Fulsome, Last Samurai, King Fury, and First Captain with authority.

West Will Power actually finished even faster in his allowance win at Churchill, running the fourth quarter-mile in :23.84 and the final furlong in :11.74 to beat Belmont S. (G1) alumni Intrepid Heart and graded stakes winner Cupid's Claws with ease.

I don't think we've seen West Will Power's best yet. He's improved with every run this season and boasts a 3-2-1-0 record racing 1 1/8 miles. I envision West Will Power tracking Injunction through the early stages of the Clark before taking command and turning back Rich Strike to secure his first Grade 1 win.

For the minor awards, #1 Proxy is worth a look. The son of Tapit hasn't missed the board in a dozen starts, including seven graded stakes. This year alone, Proxy has finished second in the New Orleans Classic (G2), third in the Ben Ali S. (G3), and second in the Stephen Foster S. (G2) while squaring off against graded stakes winners Olympiad, Americanrevolution, and Dynamic One. Proxy hasn't run since July, but he enters the Clark off a pair of bullet workouts and won his return from a 10 1/2-month break to kick off 2022, so I'm optimistic Proxy can secure his typical top-four finish.

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.

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