Mission is Possible in the Clark Stakes

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 unstoppable.

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 Churchill Downs.

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 lengths.

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
2nd: Gasoline
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.

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