Clark is top holiday treat

| November 23, 2011

Browsing through the Web a couple of days ago, I ran across an article that said some scientists think they’ve found something faster than the speed of light.

An interesting discovery, but I’m used to appreciating speedy things in my job. And, in my wealth of experience of watching speedy horses, I can testify that nothing – perhaps not even the speed of light – moves faster than the Churchill Downs Fall Meet.

The 21-day racing session ends on Sunday, Nov. 27, wrapping up a holiday weekend of the last live racing in Louisville until Kentucky Derby Week 2012. To our delight, the weekend finale will provide some meaningful stakes races and more of the Fall Meet’s primary delight: many races showcasing 2-year-olds that could develop into major contenders for next spring’s 138th runnings of the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks.

As much as I love the 2-year-olds and the potential they possess, my favorite race of the Fall Meet is its most tradition-rich event: the 137th running of the Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare on the Black Friday racing card on Nov. 25.

The Grade I race for older horses at a mile and an eighth is as old as the Derby and Oaks and, like those better-known events, has been run without interruption since it served as the main event on the closing day of the track then known as the Louisville Jockey Club in 1875.

The Clark is coming off a thrilling and somewhat controversial 2010 renewal that saw a rapidly improving horse named Successful Dan get to the wire first, but a stewards’ decision lifted Giant Oak to the top spot in the race. It was a rough and tumble running of the Clark and the interference that resulted in Successful Dan’s DQ was actually caused by horses inside of him, but down his number came.

My first hope, as always, is that this year’s Clark be a clean and safely run race, but there’s added excitement in this year’s running of the 1 1/8-race because it is a contest with championship implications.

The recent Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Churchill Downs were a roller-coaster ride of exciting races and longshot winners, but the latter left the Eclipse Awards that go to champions in several divisions very much in play. The results of Friday’s Clark could have an impact on Eclipse votes in two divisions.

The first Eclipse at play honors America’s top older horse, and likely Clark favorite Flat Out – fifth for Preston Stables as the lukewarm favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Classic won by Drosselmeyer – would make a strong case for that trophy with a win on Friday.

Trainer Scooter Dickey’s star is unlikely to be a player for Horse of the Year after finishing off-the-board in the Classic, but win in over a strong field in the Grade I Clark might be the difference when it comes to honoring the nation’s best older horses.

He won the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Suburban at Belmont Park and ran second to likely Horse of the Year contenders Havre de Grace and Tizway, respectively, in the Woodward and Whitney Handicaps.

A Clark win would be a marvelous way for 70-year-old trainer Charles “Scooter” Dickey to wrap up the year. The Gold Cup provided him with the first Grade I race of a career of more than a half-century. A second win at that level at his home track would be terrific, and an Eclipse Award for the star of his five-horse stable would be an incredible exclamation point on his career year.

The other horse with an eye on an Eclipse Award is George and Lori Hall’s Belmont Stakes winner Ruler On Ice, who ran a good third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. A victory over older horses in the Grade I Clark would be a nice addition to his win in the final jewel of the Triple Crown and would put him in the hunt for the Eclipse Award that goes to the nation’s top 3-year-old.

Last week, the case was made in this corner to recognize Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom as the 3-year-old champion, but his record is shaky. He also won the Lane’s End Stakes on Polytrack at Turfway Park and ran a good second to Shackleford in the Preakness, but went to the sidelines after he was injured in a fifth-place run in the Belmont.

His Triple Crown win is the only stakes victory of the year for the gelded son of Roman Ruler, but a victory over Flat Out and other foes that include major stakes winners Wise Dan, General Quarters, Mission Impazible, Stately Victory, Mister Marti Gras and fellow 3-year-old Prayer for Relief might help him edge the Derby winner and Caleb’s Posse, who had a great year but enjoyed most of his success in races at one-turn, in a three-way scramble.

Those two championship hopefuls appear to be the most likely winners, but Flat Out has not hit the board in three races at Churchill Downs and Ruler On Ice still has to beat older foes. I do know this: I’ll be looking for a little Black Friday shopping money with Wise Dan and the Nick Zito-trained longshot Equestrio.

In a week or two, we’ll look back at the Fall Meet 2-year-olds most likely to make noise on the road to Derby and Oaks 138. It’s likely that several will run on Saturday’s “Stars of Tomorrow II” program that includes the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and its counterpart for fillies, the Golden Rod.

Closing weekend can be a bittersweet affair, but exciting races and promising 2-year-olds tend to get the blood flowing and set dreamers, a large segment of the population in horse business, to dream even bigger things.  Enjoy it.

To all our readers, have a wonderful and blessed Thanksgiving holiday and enjoy closing weekend. When the last race of the Fall Meet of 2011 is run, there will be fewer than 160 days remaining until Kentucky Derby 138.

In those days leading up to the Derby, we’ll offer another challenge to the speed of light.

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Category: Horse Sense

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