Game On Dude, a seven-time Grade I winner in California, will break from the rail and Travers (GI) champ Will Take Charge, who lost the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic (GI) by a nose, landed post No. 7 as both horses attempt to bolster their résumés for year-end championship honors against a field of nine 3-year-olds and up that were entered for Friday's 139th running of the $500,000-added Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (GI) at Churchill Downs.
Friday's 1 1/8-mile fixture is the centerpiece of a special 12-race “Black Friday” program that begins at 12:40 p.m. (all times Eastern). The Clark will go as Race 11 at 5:35 p.m.
Game On Dude, the durable and speedy 6-year-old gelded son of Awesome Again owned by a partnership that includes Bernard Sciappa, the Lanni Family Trust of Terrance Lanni, Diamond Pride Stable of baseball legend Joe Torre and Ernie Moody's Mercedes Stable, was made the 8-5 morning line favorite by oddsmaker Mike Battaglia.
Despite a disappointing ninth-place finish as the favorite in the Nov. 2 Classic at Santa Anita, the Bob Baffert trainee will carry 126 pounds – the highest Clark Handicap impost since heavy favorite Taylor's Special carried the same amount when he was upset by 24-1 longshot Come Summer (112 pounds) in the 1986 renewal.
In addition, he'll be only the 14th horse in the race's storied history to start while carrying at least 126 pounds. Only six have prevailed. The most recent was Swoon's Son, who beat Bernburgoo by 1 ½ lengths in the 1956 Clark while tacking 128 pounds. The most weight assigned and carried to victory in the Clark Handicap was 133 pounds tacked by Hall of Famer and 1918 Kentucky Derby winner Exterminator, who returned to Churchill Downs at age 7 to beat Lady Madcap (111 pounds) by 1 ½ lengths in 1922.
“They've weighted him like he's Horse of the Year, so I guess that's a compliment,” Baffert said. “I'm glad (Churchill Downs racing secretary Ben) Huffman (who assigned the weights) isn't down on the horse like everyone else is.”
Game On Dude, a seven-time winner in nine starts at the 1 1/8-mile Clark distance, had won six consecutive stakes races prior to the Classic, a string that included Grade I triumphs in the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic. His career record stands at 28-15-5-1—$5,602,158 (his earnings rank 30th all time) and a victory in the Clark could bolster Game On Dude's case for year-end Eclipse Award honors that include Horse of the Year and champion older male. Baffert's star was the favorite for those tributes prior to the Breeders' Cup dud.
Will Take Charge, the D. Wayne Lukas-trained 3-year-old who will attempt to nail down an Eclipse Award as the champion of his age group, is the 9-5 second choice against elders and will carry 123 pounds after receiving a three-pound break in the weights because he's a 3-year-old.
“I think he's already sealed (the Champion 3-Year-Old Male award),” Lukas said. “I would rather take the position that the Clark is a significant race with Grade I status and a nice purse, and an opportunity to showcase our horse again. I almost wish there was more to the season, because he is good right now. It's a prestigious race in many ways. It's a Grade I and if we could get another Grade I against older competition around two turns, I think it would be significant.”
Will Take Charge, the chestnut son of Unbridled's Song owned by Willis D. Horton, was beaten – as Lukas describes – “a dirty nose” by Mucho Macho Man in the Classic despite being fanned six-while on the far turn when Palace Malice came out.
“To run down those horses – Game On Dude and Mucho Macho Man and those type horses – in the stretch like he did after getting bumped and pushed out was significant,” Lukas said. “I mean, he was running.”
Prior to the Classic, Will Take Charge rattled off back-to-back graded stakes wins in the Travers (GI) and Pennsylvania Derby (GII). He heads into the Clark with record of 14-5-3-0—$2,727,371 and has banked more than $2.6 million this year, which tops all 3-year-olds.
The complete Clark Handicap field from the rail out (with jockeys, assigned weight and morning line odds): Game On Dude (Mike Smith, 126, 8-5 favorite); Finnegans Wake (Julien Leparoux, 116, 20-1); Bourbon Courage (Corey Lanerie, 117, 8-1); Golden Ticket (Robby Albarado, 120, 9-2); Prayer for Relief (Ricardo Santana Jr., 118, 12-1); Easter Gift (Joel Rosario, 116, 12-1); Will Take Charge (Luis Saez, 123, 9-5); Our Double Play (Francisco Torres, 113, 20-1); and Jaguar Paw (Shaun Bridgmohan, 115, 20-1).
This will be Game On Dude's third appearance at Churchill Downs. He was runner-up to Drosselmeyer in the 2011 Breeders' Cup Classic and ran fifth to Hurricane Ike as a 3-year-old in the 2010 renewal of Derby Trial (GIII). Will Take Charge, who is based at Churchill Downs in the spring and fall, ran last of 13 in the 2012 Kentucky Jockey Club (GII) as a 2-year-old and finished a troubled eighth in this year's Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI).
In addition to Game On Dude and Will Take Charge, the Clark field has a great deal of substance. Cumulatively, the field of nine has banked more than $13.2 million.
Magic City Thoroughbred Partners' Golden Ticket (20-5-6-3—$1,091,323) finished in a dead-heat for first with Alpha in the 2012 Travers at Saratoga and has run very well in Grade I company this year. His best outings of 2013 include a runner-up finish to Goldencents in the recent Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (GI) and a runner-up finished to Fort Larned in the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.
Trainer Kenny McPeek briefly considered Golden Ticket for a run in Aqueduct's Cigar Mile (GI) before settling on the Clark. “A couple of his better speed figures are here at Churchill, plus he doesn't have to ship,” McPeek said.
Bourbon Lane Farm's Bourbon Courage (12-3-4-3—$841,844), runner-up in the Donn Handicap (GI) and third in the Oaklawn Handicap (GII) and Alysheba (GII), looks to avenge a third-place finish behind Shackleford and Take Charge Indy in last year's Clark. The 4-year-old will attempt to break a six-race losing streak that dates back to a victory in last year's Super Derby (GII) and comes into the race off a runner-up finish in a Churchill Downs allowance race on Oct. 31 – his first race in six months.
“He definitely needed that race last time and came out of it well,” trainer Kellyn Gorder said. “He's put in some nice breezes since then … and he's ready to roll. I know we'll play the role of underdog, but that's okay. We're happy with where our horse is and I'm anxious to see him run again.”
Robert LaPenta's New York-based Easter Gift (13-6-3-1—$558,166) won the $350,000 Smarty Jones (GIII) at Parx Racing last year, and his most recent success this year was a June victory in Penn National's $250,000 Mountainview Handicap. Since then he finished second as the favorite $100,000 Alydar at Saratoga and was fifth to Graydar in the $400,000 Kelso (GII) at Belmont Park on Sept. 13. A plan to run in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile was scrapped when he was placed on the also-eligible list.
“The horse is just training really well and (the Clark) just fits,” trainer Chad Brown said. “Something at a mile-and-an-eighth is what I was looking to run him in. He's doing so well I think it's worth a shot.”
Zayat Stables LLC's 5-year-old Prayer for Relief (23-7-5-4—$1,530,406) is a multiple graded stakes winner with victories in this year's Prairie Meadows Cornhusker (GIII) and Governor's Cup at Remington Park. Trainer Steve Asmussen has cross-entered the 5-year-old in Saturday's $350,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup (GII).
Donegal Racing's Finnegans Wake (17-2-2-3—$473,277) was the runner-up in the 2012 Secretariat (GI) on turf and fourth in the recent Fayette Stakes (GII) over the synthetic Polytrack at Keeneland. The 4-year-old is winless in six races this year but he's finished fourth in a trio of Grade I grass events behind turf stars Point of Entry in the Woodford Reserve Manhattan, Boisterous in the Man O' War and Real Solution in the Arlington Million (GI).
“We're coming in with difference circumstances than last year, but the pressure won't be quite as tough,” said trainer Dale Romans, who saddled Shackleford to his final victory in the Clark. “He likes this racetrack and he's doing good. I know there are two monsters in there, but we'll see what happens.”
Rigney Racing LLC's Our Double Play (11-4-1-1—$165,572), who beat Bourbon Courage by 3 ¾ lengths in that 7 ½-furlong allowance in the slop on Oct. 31, figures to challenge Game On Dude for the early lead in the Clark. The 3-year-old's trainer Phil Bauer, a former McPeek assistant, is off to a great start since leaving that stable to be a private trainer for the Rigneys. He won with his first starter (Cookie) on Sept. 21 and has won three of five starts and $81,360 overall.
John D. Gunther and Eurowest Bloodstock Services' Jaguar Paw (21-5-2-5—$281,857), a former Brown trainee who is now conditioned by Stephen Lyster, will make his first start in 103 days. The 6-year-old's last race was third-place finish behind Last Gunfighter in the Philip H. Iselin (GIII) at Monmouth Park on Aug. 18 – his lone graded stakes appearance.
A victory by Game On Dude would be Baffert's third in the Clark. He won the race in 1998 when Robert and Beverly Lewis' Silver Charm, winner of the 1997 Kentucky Derby, became the first Derby winner since Calumet Farm's Whirlaway to take both races. Baffert also won the race in 1996 with Terry Henn and Mike Pegram's Isitingood, his first starter in the Clark.
He also saddled Misremembered in the 2009 Clark and lost by a head to Blame, who would win the Breeders' Cup Classic in 2010. Other Baffert runners in the Clark have included Tribunal, who finished 10th and last in the 2001 renewal; During, who finished 12th in 2003; and Prayer for Relief, who was trained by Baffert when he ran ninth in the 2011 Clark won by Wise Dan, who would earn “Horse of the Year” honors the following year.
Lukas used the Clark to wrap-up a championship season in 2000 for Overbrook Farm's Surfside, who was named the nation's top 3-year-old filly after she wrapped up her season with a victory over males in the Clark.
Asmussen, Bauer, Brown, Gorder, Lyster and McPeek seek their first win in the Clark. Bridgmohan (Giant Oak in 2010), Leparoux (Einstein-BRZ in 2008) and Smith (Mi Cielo in 1993) are the only jockeys to have ridden a previous Clark winner.
The stakes record is 1:47.39, which was established by Premium Tap while carrying 115 pounds in 2006.
Friday's forecast for Louisville calls for sunny skies with a high near 43 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
Like the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI) and the Kentucky Oaks (GI), the Clark has been run each year without interruption since it was introduced in the first race meeting at Churchill Downs, then known as the Louisville Jockey Club, in 1875.
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