The 2013 Clark Handicap was one of its most exciting and anticipated editions to date, as two of racing’s biggest superstars, Game On Dude and eventual winner Will Take Charge, faced off with hopes of winning an Eclipse Award. No such race is taking place in this year’s Clark, the 140th running of Friday’s Grade 1 fixture at Churchill Downs still makes for a good race with a field of nine that includes eight graded stakes winners.
Hoppertunity, who was scratched from the Kentucky Derby earlier in the year due to a bruised foot, looks to get a win over the Louisville oval for trainer Bob Baffert and co-owner Mike Pegram, who teamed up to win the 1996 Clark with Isitingood. Baffert is seeking his first victory in the Clark since he won with Derby and Preakness winner Silver Charm in 1998.
Baffert said Hoppertunity is coming into the race in good order and that he should take to the track, drawing on his memory of watching him train over it earlier this spring.
“He’s coming into the race really well,” Baffert said. “He worked nice Derby week and was training really well at Churchill, so it’s great to be able to bring him back.”
The 3-year-old son of Any Given Saturday won the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park and finished a distant second behind eventual Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby earlier this year. A bruise to his left front foot forced him out of the Derby and he’s run only once since, a second-place finish behind stablemate Pimpernel in a 7-furlong allowance-optional last month at Santa Anita Park.
Baffert said Hoppertunity needed that race and that the distance was a big factor. He went on to point out that the 9 furlongs of the Clark should be more up the colt’s alley.
“He was coming at him [Pimpernel], he was just running out of real estate,” Baffert said. “The race was a little too short for him.”
Baffert said the timing and the distance were two key factors for picking the Clark for Hoppertunity.
“I like that it’s a Grade 1 and a mile and an eighth,” said Baffert, who will stay in Southern California while assistant Jim Barnes deputizes at Churchill. “I also think that the 3-year-olds seem to be doing a lot better than the older horses this year.”
New York shipper Easter Gift returns to the Clark after finishing third in last year’s running, being only beaten 2 lengths behind eventual champion 3-year-old male Will Take Charge and $6,498,893-earner and multiple Grade 1 winner Game On Dude.
Trainer Chad Brown said the 5-year-old son of Hard Spun was coming into the race well and acknowledged that even though gets some class relief compared to last year’s Clark, he still believes his horse will need to run huge.
“Nevertheless, the Clark will still be a difficult race and the horse is going to have to run his ‘A’ race to win,” Brown said. “He seems to be training well and he has a good run over the track so that should suit him pretty well.”
Constitution is another talented 3-year-old who was forced off the Derby trail due to an injury. The son of Tapit was impressive winning the Grade 1 Florida Derby in late March but was ruled out of the classics after he developed a hairline fracture in his front right cannon bone shortly after. Trained by Todd Pletcher, Constitution made an unsuccessful return to the races in his last outing at Belmont Park last month, where he broke slow and finished 1 1/2 lengths behind Easter Gift in an allowance-optional.
The remainder of the Clark field includes Pletcher’s other 3-year-old, the up-and-coming Protonico, who scored a victory in the Grade 3 Discovery Handicap at Aqueduct last time out, the Dale Romans-trained duo of Prayer for Relief and Pick of the Litter, 3-1 morning-line favorite Departing and longshots Looking Cool and Knights Nation.
The Clark Handicap is the 11th of 12 races Friday with a scheduled post time of 5:35 p.m. EST.
Entries for Friday’s Clark Handicap.