Normally for this weekend I would go with the Cigar Mile (I), but with Groupie Doll running in it this year I don’t see much of a ball to be had trying to work out a nifty handicapping angle. That mare is on fire! I’m also really intrigued by the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (II) for juvies… probably the first time ever that that’s happened.
Preakness winner Shackleford is the high-weight for Friday’s Clark Handicap (I) at Churchill Downs, known as the premiere G1 rematch for many Breeders’ Cup contenders or those who elected to skip the world championships. Joining him are G1 Florida Derby winner Take Charge Indy, Hawthorne Gold Cup (II) winner Pool Play, and Super Derby (II) winner Bourbon Courage among a field of ten that ensures an interesting race with a ton of value.
Weather looks good, and morning showers will likely not affect the track too much by post time. Keep an eye on it though.
$500,000 Clark Handicap (I) - 3-Year-Olds & Up. 1 1/8 miles on dirt at Churchill Downs. Post Time: Friday, November 23 at 5:35pm
[Post Position, Horse - Jockey, Impost, Trainer - Summary, Opinion in italics]
1) Pool Play - Corey Lanerie, 118 lbs, Mark Casse - A horse that doesn’t mind his long odds and will probably get some semi-long ones here again, the Silver Deputy son brushes off his poor 8th place showing in the Breeders’ Cup Classic a few weeks ago to try again at Churchill, where he already owns a G1 win on the dirt. The pace will be sweet for this closer, but he will face some steeper foes and typically he gets more time between races than just 3 weeks. Lanerie’s been tops lately.
2) Eye of the Leopard - Jon Court, 115 lbs, D. Wayne Lukas - A Breeders’ Cup Marathon (II) dropout, the 6-year-old A.P. Indy son shoots for the moon in his second career dirt start— his first one was a sprint at Churchill 2 years ago where he finished a distant 6th. A stakes winner on all-weather and just 1 win in an allowance this year, this guy has been working well enough on the Churchill dirt and pedigree-wise is worthy. He gets a big weight advantage, but did not respond at all in his last start running 8th in the Fayette Stakes (II) on Keeneland’s poly going. His speed figures as well as his past performances boom louder than his workouts: “HUGE LONG SHOT.”
3) Shackleford - Jesus Castanon, 120 lbs, Dale Romans - The enormous Forestry colt hopes to restore his reputation with an effort better than his poor trip in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (I), where he stumbled and got stuck to finish 7th as the heavy and deserving favorite. A miler at heart, he has placed twice and won once in 3 tries at this distance. He remains sharp and will go to the lead. With old jock Castanon in the irons, he has the added benefit of psychology— he wants to go out with a bang, and who better to want to also help him achieve that than his returning Preakness rider?
4) Bourbon Courage - Leandro Goncalves, 117 lbs, Kellyn Gorder - Marvelous as the 5-length winner of the Super Derby (II), the Lion Heart sophomore lost a courageous dive to the wire in the Indiana Derby (II) last out to Neck ‘N Neck, and should be pleased with the return to 9 furlongs here. Pace will be to his liking and given how quickly he can close ground (as shown in the Indiana), he’s going to be sneaky on the improve.
5) Cease - Miguel Mena, 117 lbs, Al Stall - The War Chant gelding looks to be at his best this year with a 3rd in the Woodward (I) and missed the Hawthorne Gold Cup (II) by a mere 1/2 length to Pool Play. I like him plenty from an improvement angle, but have to wonder how competitive he is right now to jump into a G1 event. While strong at this distance, he also seems to want more ground than just 9 furlongs.
6) Take Charge Indy - Calvin Borel, 117 lbs, Patrick Byrne - The A.P. Indy 4-year-old won the Florida Derby (I) earlier in the spring and made a promising comeback in the 9-furlong Fayette (II) at Keeneland where he was caught as ground ran out and finished 3rd in his usual spot up front. Borel can only help his chances, but he may need another start before he can compete here. Byrne is optimistic which is a promising angle, but I’m not vested in a horse who wants the lead with Shackleford in the race.
7) Fast Falcon - Shaun Bridgmohan, 113 lbs, Nick Zito - The Awesome Again sophomore made a good run in his first race against older horses last out in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (I), rallying hard and wide to finish 5th and nearly bested 4th place Atigun, who went on to have a really nice 3rd place effort in the Marathon (II). This horse is better than his PPs suggest, and with a feather impost and a solid pace, I cannot possibly leave him out of my exotics on a fast track.
8) Stealcase - Brian Hernandez Jr, 115 lbs, Mark Casse - Lawyer Ron colt I initially liked, but has been on and off. A past winner at Churchill, he was the winner of the Ontario Derby (III) at Woodbine then was absolutely no threat running last in the Indiana Derby (II). He gained ground quick enough but ran out of room last out in the 1-mile Ack Ack (III) to be 3rd. Never out of the money in his 4 Churchill starts (3 of them G3 stakes) and getting more running room, I don’t feel like Stealcase is the winning type of horse but one that will try to work his way up close.
9) Mission Impazible - Javier Castellano, 115 lbs, Todd Pletcher - Soon to be retired, the Unbridled’s Song gelding makes one more go in the race he almost won last year (I also picked him to win), but got overwhelmed in the final yards by Wise Dan. A horse that seems to love running 2nd, 9 furlongs seems to be his ideal distance. Fitness is questionable, but he gets a nice weight break for what he’s really capable of.
10) Lunar Victory - Junior Alvarado, 116 lbs, Bill Mott - An impressive horse from Juddmonte’s colors, the Speightstown son has recorded 5 wins in 6 starts this year all in New York jumping from his win in the 9-furlong Empire Classic to his first graded try. If Bill Mott thinks he’s ready, then by golly he’s ready. It’s hard to knock a record like his and I enjoyed watching him race against Saratoga Snacks in a very well-earned win last out.
Top Picks in Order:
2) Lunar Victory
3) Bourbon Courage
Despite being best at a mile, Shack’s class is too much: he’s beaten Animal Kingdom and Caleb’s Posse hellooooo. I feel comfortable enough to draw a line through a lot of these entries simply by comparing how good they are not in relation to Shackleford, who is speed as well as heart, but from there it gets tough. Fast Falcon who has some good acceleration favored by a light impost, Lunar Victory who has a good stretch drive will be closer to pounce, and Bourbon Courage who is a G2-winning closer on the improve— these three I like best. I envision Shack setting his solid pace to wire the field, with the two sharpest accelerators Bourbon and Falcon firing early to try and get him before he opens up. Lunar Victory has a good drive and will be closer with less traffic and should stay on.
Value Pick: Fast Falcon likely to be the wise-guy of the bunch, but also take a look at Mission Impazible who is always full of random top-tier performances to use in exotics.