2016 Handicapping Feast: Clark Handicap Preview

The sun rises in the east, the sun sets in the west, and the Clark Handicap will be run at Churchill Downs this year: just as it has been every year since 1875.  The race is named after Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, who started the Louisville Jockey Club along with his cousins, John and Henry Churchill.  (The name Meriwether Lewis Clark is no coincidence: he was a grandson of the very William Clark who went on the famous expedition with Meriwether Lewis).

The Clark was originally a two-mile race restricted to three-year-olds, though it was shortened in 1881 and opened to three-year-olds and up in 1902.  It has also been run at a variety of distances, as short at 1 1/16 miles.  It has covered today’s nine-furlong distance for most of its history: 1896-1901, 1922-1924, and from 1955 to the present day.

The Clark Handicap serves as the anchor of the November meet at Churchill Downs, and is the first top-level race for the handicap division since the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  From a local perspective, Illinois-bred Giant Oak won the 2010 edition of the Clark after Successful Dan (who crossed the wire just a head in front) was disqualified to third for bumping Reading Colliery down the stretch.

Other notable winners of the Clark, among many, include 1881 Kentucky Derby winner and inaugural Hall of Fame inductee Hindoo (1881), hard-knocking war horses Old Rosebud (1917) and Exterminator (1922), 1941 Triple Crown winner Whirlaway (1942), onetime Arlington stakes namesake Swoon’s Son (1958), Hall of Fame inductee Silver Charm (1998), and two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan (2011).

Silver Charm fights off longshot Littlebitlively to take the 1998 Clark Handicap (GII).

In addition to this preview of the Clark, be sure to read our previews of Thursday’s Falls City Handicap (GII) and River City Handicap (GIII) at Churchill Downs, as well as our preview of Saturday’s Cigar Mile (GI) at Aqueduct.

Friday, November 25 – Churchill Downs

Race 11: Clark Handicap (GI), three-year-olds and up, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 5:56 EST

Ten horses entered for their chance at Grade I glory — and a share of a $500,000 purse — in this year’s Clark Handicap.  NOBLE BIRD has not been the most consistent horse in the world, but when he is good he is good.  Though he has shown flashes of rating ability, NOBLE BIRD does his best when he can get a clear lead.  He did that last out in the Fayette (GII) at Keeneland, and two back in the Lukas Classic at Churchill.  NOBLE BIRD looks to get that again today.  On paper, it seems his biggest rival for the lead is MR. Z — but NOBLE BIRD made quick work of outgunning that one in the Fayette, and should have no trouble doing so again here.  NOBLE BIRD is proven at Churchill, as well, and rider Julien Leparoux has been firing at 22% on the meet.

NOBLE BIRD should also be a palatable price with HOPPERTUNITY shipping in for the race.  HOPPERTUNITY will take money — but with NOBLE BIRD getting such a setup over a track he likes, leave off-pace type HOPPERTUNITY out of the top slot.  HOPPERTUNITY has shown enough at Churchill to merit consideration underneath, but pass on him on the win end.

Instead, GUN RUNNER poses NOBLE BIRD’s biggest threat on top.  GUN RUNNER gets a dry Churchill Downs track here, something he has proven he likes.  He has also been solid at a mile and an eighth, with a victory and a close second in his only two dry-track tries at the distance.  He will not likely make the top over NOBLE BIRD, but should be stalking in close enough range to get the first credible run.  Should MR. Z somehow muster enough this time out to be a gadfly to NOBLE BIRD, GUN RUNNER will be a threat down the stretch.

For the third slot, it was a close decision between the Jimmy Jerkens pair, SHAMAN GHOST and EFFINEX.  SHAMAN GHOST makes his first start, since a victory in the Woodward Stakes (GI), as illness forced him to scratch from the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) earlier this month.  His best contends here, and he did win a Grade I in his only try going a mile and an eighth.  However, this space prefers EFFINEX.  He has alternated stronger and weaker starts through the year, suggesting he will bounce back from his Breeders’ Cup Classic clunker here.  He has three wins at a mile and an eighth, including a victory in the Clark last year.  EFFINEX has also shown himself to be versatile enough to adjust to varying pace scenarios.  Though he will not send with NOBLE BIRD, he should be tactical enough to stay in striking range and make a credible late run.


#6 NOBLE BIRD (7/2)

#1 GUN RUNNER (4/1)

#2 EFFINEX (4/1)

Longshot:  #5 HAWAAKOM (20/1) takes a big step up in class here, but he is in the right recent form to do it.  He has taken minor awards behind NOBLE BIRD in his last two starts, showing an ability to rally and improve position behind a strong wire-to-wire winner.  HAWAAKOM also likes the course and distance.  He has hit the board in five of six tries on the Churchill main, and in five of seven attempts at the distance.  HAWAAKOM also keeps his regular rider aboard, Miguel Mena.  Though a win may be too much to ask, HAWAAKOM’s form and consistency put him into the exotics at enormous odds.

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