One has to experience Thanksgiving Day at the track to truly appreciate the warmth of that special day beneath the Twin Spires. And the turkey and trimmings are pretty good, too.
The now four-day holiday weekend at the track also merges excitement and optimism in its races for 2-year-olds, the males and females that will be candidates for next spring’s Kentucky Derby Presented By Yum! Brands and Kentucky Oaks. And there’s also a dose of melancholy, as the fleeting meet always includes more than its share of farewells. Some of those are for horses whose days on the track are at an end, while others for members of the racetrack family who are heading to warmer climes for the winter, or, in some cases, just moving on.
From a personal perspective, all of those emotions were conjured during and after Friday’s 138th running of the $400,000 Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare. The 1 1/8-mile race for older horses is as old as the Derby and Oaks and shares their respective histories of being run each year without interruption since business at the track at 700 Central Avenue was launched on May 17, 1875.
The Clark has always been my favorite race of the fall, and the fact that is now recognized as a Grade I, top-level event has made it even more special.
But the 2012 Clark has moved to the top of the class as a personal favorite as the victory by Mike Lauffer, Bill Cubbedge and Phillips Racing’s Shackleford concluded his wonderful racing career in the best-possible fashion. Shackleford went to the front when the gates were sprung and did exactly what one hopes to see when a horse of his talent and style is on the track: he improved on that position.
Though the distance of the Clark is nine furlongs, the race seemed essentially done after two, and a near certainty after a half-mile. Jockey Jesus Castanon, who was in the saddle the day Shackleford made his splash on the national racing scene with an upset of Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom in the 2011 Preakness, had the big chestnut in cruise control.
Shack led the field through a first quarter of :24.31 and four furlongs in :48.65.
Those 12-second furlongs were like a light jog compared to :44 and :45 half-miles he had seen most of the season. He would, it seemed, have plenty of gas still in the tank when the real running started.
And that’s exactly how it played out as Shackleford, in a race that everyone on the track knew was the last of his career, opened a 2 ½-length lead in the stretch and held off 3-year-old challengers Take Charge Indy, winner of the Florida Derby, and Bourbon Courage, the West Virginia Derby king, to win by a length.
It was good to see a good horse go out with the spotlight shining brightly upon him. He completed his career with a record of 6-5-1 from 20 races and his Clark winnings of $266,054 pushed his career earnings well past the $3 million mark.
But it was even better to see the reaction and share in part of the joy displayed those who have cared for Shackleford throughout the three years of his racing career.
That makes Shack’s win very much a Louisville story.
The head of the clan behind Shackleford is Dale Romans, a Louisville native and son of a trainer who essentially grew up beneath the Twin Spires. Romans has enjoyed a spectacular year – his “career year,” in fact. He will likely win the Eclipse Award that designates America’s top trainer in 2012, thanks to the efforts of Shackleford and a roster of Grade I winners that includes Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Little Mike, Dullahan and the grass mare Tapitsfly.
As great as each of those notable victories might have been, it’s hard to imagine that any could have been more special than the triumph in the Clark, one of the great, tradition-rich races at Romans’ hometown track. It was the first win for Dale Romans in one of the historic track’s signature races. His father did most of his running and winning the claiming and allowance ranks, and rarely had a horse that one would think was of Clark Handicap caliber, even well before the race was as strong as it is today.
So when Shackleford was in front at the top of the stretch and the Clark in their grasp, the Romans entourage erupted. Daily Racing Form correspondent Marty McGee, another native Louisvillian, has a first-hand appreciation of the magic of winning this race. His younger brother, trainer Paul McGee, won the race in 1988 with Balthazar B. sparking a wild celebration among the extended McGee family.
Mart took to Twitter just after the race.
“Can’t overstate how cool it was to be near Romans and his crowd as Shackleford held sway down the lane in the G1 Clark,” Marty wrote, “Truly awesome.”
That last word is perhaps the most overused and misused word in the English language these days, but Marty was right. “Awesome” was perfect for this scene.
“What a horse,” Romans said in the winner’s circle. “I love that horse. We all love that horse.”
While basking in the moment, it’s a pretty sure bet that Dale Romans had thoughts of his father, and of trainers like Don Winfree and Angel Montano, whose barns were located adjacent to his father’s when young Dale was just learning the game. His roots are at Churchill Downs and his horses now stabled at the Louisville track are stabled in the same section of the barn area in which he grew up.
The win was a beautiful moment for the home team, and an appreciative crowd on the day after Thanksgiving offered a warm and appreciative roar when Shackleford returned to the winner’s circle.
The moment was remarkable simply on the merits. But add decades of work and dreams; wins and losses; and smiles and tears, and it becomes something else altogether. The Clark victory was an incredible moment for Romans, and a happy farewell to a horse that changed his life.
“It’s the end of an era for my stable,” Romans said. “He took my career to a new level. He made my resumé totally different than it was before he came into the barn. I owe him a lot.”