By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
From 2010 through 2022, the historic
Clark Stakes at Churchill Downs carried Grade 1 status, and the roster of
winners included future Horses of the Year Wise Dan (2011) and Gun Runner (2016)
plus Preakness (G1) winner Shackleford (2012) and Breeders' Cup Classic (G1)
runners-up Will Take Charge (2013) and Effinex (2015).
But the Clark has been
downgraded to Grade 2 status for 2023, and the 1 1/8-mile race has correspondingly
drawn a lighter field. There isn't a single Grade 1 winner among the 10
entrants, and none have run especially fast in terms of Beyer Speed Figures and
Brisnet Speed ratings.
But that doesn't mean there
isn't a future Grade 1 winner in the 2023 Clark field. While most of the
entrants are older horses with well-established form, morning line favorite #2 First Mission (3-1) is a lightly
raced three-year-old with lots of upside for two-time Eclipse Award-winning
trainer Brad Cox.
First Mission finished
second in his debut sprinting six furlongs at Fair Grounds, beaten less than
one length by future Peter Pan S. (G3) and Ohio Derby (G3) runner-up Bishops
Bay. But since stretching out around two turns, First Mission has been
First Mission graduated by 6
3/4 lengths in a 1 1/16-mile maiden special weight at Fair Grounds, after which
he stepped up in class for the 1 1/16-mile Lexington S. (G3) at Keeneland.
Facing a quality field that looks even better in retrospect, First Mission
tracked the pace from third place, slipped up the inside in the homestretch,
and battled to victory by half a length over future Woody Stephens S. (G1)
winner Arabian Lion. Finishing a distant third was Disarm, subsequently victorious
in the Matt Winn S. (G3) and runner-up in the Travers S. (G1).
This sharp performance
stamped First Mission as a key contender for the Preakness S. (G1), but an ankle
issue forced him to scratch. He didn't return to serious training until the end
of August, but a sharp series of workouts at Churchill Downs had him ready for
an $80,000 allowance optional claimer racing 1 1/16 miles on Oct. 14 at
Keeneland, and First Mission rallied to win by a neck.
First Mission's narrow margin
of victory wasn't eye-catching, but dig a little deeper and his performance becomes
more impressive. He had to wait a bit in traffic behind a slow pace around the
far turn, and it was only in the homestretch that he managed to steer sharply
outside and find a seam between rivals. At that point, First Mission kicked on
nicely to beat 2021 Champagne (G1) runner-up Commandperformance, who came right
back to win an $80,000 allowance optional claimer racing 1 1/8 miles at
The slow pace of First
Mission's comeback effort wasn't conducive to producing large speed figures, so
we'll forgive the fact he regressed on the Beyer and Brisnet scales. With a
quicker tempo and an unencumbered trip in the Clark, and I'm convinced First
Mission will move forward in a big way. The fact he's posted three sharp
workouts since his comeback (including a pair of bullet five-furlong exercises
at Churchill Downs) further boosts my confidence.
For the minor awards, #4 Gasoline (5-1) offers appeal. The improving
four-year-old son of Curlin has been sharp in two starts since returning from a
lengthy layoff for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher. On Sept. 21, he rallied
from a couple lengths off a decent pace to win a 1 1/16-mile $80,000 allowance
optional claimer at Churchill Downs by a neck. On Nov. 4, he was much more
dominant in a $100,000 allowance optional claimer over the same track and
distance, charging from 3 1/2 lengths behind to trounce Cornhusker H. (G3)
winner #7 Giant Game (12-1) by 5 1/4
Gasoline is progressing in
the right direction and should relish racing 1 1/8 miles, considering he broke
his maiden over this trip and wired a 1 3/16-mile allowance at Aqueduct back in
January. His combination of tactical speed and tractability should ensure that
Gasoline works out a favorable trip under accomplished jockey Flavien Prat, a 20%
winner this year.
We'll also highlight #1 Straight Arrow (8-1) as an
intriguing live longshot worth supporting. The son of Arrogate has dominated
his last two starts against New York-bred rivals at Aqueduct, winning a one-mile
$45,000 allowance optional claimer by nine lengths over Holy Bull S. (G3)
runner-up Shadow Dragon before stretching out around two turns to take the 1
1/8-mile Empire Classic S. by 2 3/4 lengths over the multiple stakes-placed
Sheriff Bianco and 2022 Rebel (G2) winner Un Ojo.
These victories came over
muddy, sealed tracks, so perhaps the strong Beyer Speed Figures and Brisnet
Speed ratings Straight Arrow posted should be taken with a grain of salt. But
it's worth noting those flashy figures coincided with Straight Arrow's first
two starts running long on dirt, so it's also possible he's finally found his
ideal racing conditions. Under hot jockey Florent Geroux (a 25% winner at
Churchill Downs this meet), Straight Arrow can't be counted out of the mix.
1st: First Mission
3rd: Straight Arrow
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.