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Clark ‘Cap, Derby Futures Highlight Closing Meet’s Mix of Current, Future

Photo by KENNY MARTIN | Coglianese Photography Florida Derby winner Constitution (right) was knocked out of the Kentucky Derby with an injury, but will run in the Clark for trainer Todd Pletcher.

Photo by KENNY MARTIN | Coglianese Photography
Florida Derby winner Constitution (right) was knocked out of the Kentucky Derby with an injury, but will run in the Clark for trainer Todd Pletcher.

The kick-off of the holiday season with the celebration of Thanksgiving stirs emotions in just about everyone, but there are two clear reasons that the coming weekend will produce a smile.

Thanksgiving is clearly one of the most family-centered holidays, and that makes it special for me as a product of a sprawling Catholic family with lots of branches and faces.

But Thanksgiving and the entire weekend are special at Churchill Downs, where I’ve spent most of my time during this holiday period since I officially joined the racetrack family in early 1997.

Thanksgiving Day is a fabulous day at the track when racing fans of all types enjoy the nearly 9,000 dinners with all the trimmings served beneath the Twin Spires that day. Some families have made Churchill Downs a part of their Thanksgiving celebration for generations, which puts this day pretty close to Kentucky Derby and Oaks Days on my list of the most special days of the year at my workplace.

But along with time with friends and the good feelings generated by the warmth of the weekend, the racing is terrific, and the on-track performances place an exclamation point on the racing year, leaving fans of every level of experience waiting for more when the stables, horses and jockeys come back to town in late April for Kentucky Derby and Oaks Week.

On a personal level, I’m as excited about the races this weekend as most any year I can remember.  Thanksgiving Day is headed by the Falls City Handicap for older fillies and mares, Black Friday again has the venerable Clark Handicap as its feature, and Saturday will have us looking to Spring as the “Stars of Tomorrow II” program is devoted exclusively to 2-year-olds who could emerge as Kentucky Derby and Oaks contenders just over five months down the road.

Locust Grove winner Don’t Tell Sophia was a $1,000 yearling purchase at Keeneland, but is favored in Thanksgiving Day’s Falls City Handicap.

Locust Grove winner Don’t Tell Sophia was a $1,000 yearling purchase at Keeneland, but is favored in Thanksgiving Day’s Falls City Handicap.

On top of that, the first pool of Kentucky Derby Future Wager for Derby 141 runs Friday-through-Sunday, providing an opportunity to earn bragging rights and a handsome mutual payout for betting on the young star that ends up wearing the roses on the First Saturday in May.

But the highlight for me is the Grade I Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare, a race that is as old as the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, and like those races, has been run each year without interruption since the first Churchill Downs racing meet in 1875.  This year’s running has a high bar to clear after last year’s showdown between the 3-year-old Will Take Charge and future Hall of Famer Game On Due.  Will Take Charge rallied in the last jump to win by a nose for ageless Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas and nailed down the Eclipse Award that recognized the winner as 3-year-old champion.

The Clark’s spot on the calendar occasionally provides the race with championship implications, but more often the 1 1/8-mile race for older horses is indicator of things to come.

St. Liam won the race in 2004 and would be named Horse of the Year the following year. The 3-year-old Blame won the Clark in 2009 and returned the following year to hand previously unbeaten Zenyatta her only loss in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and earned the Eclipse Award for champion older horse. And in 2011, a rising star named Wise Dan won the Clark before returning to the grass to earn back-to-back Horse of the Year honors in 2012 and 2013.

This year’s Clark could well be the latter kind of Clark, and two horses that could follow in the footsteps of aforementioned champions are Twin Creek Racing Stable and WinStar Farm’s Constitution and Mike Pegram, Karl Watson and Paul Weitman’s Hoppertunity.

Both Constitution and Hoppertunity were on-track to run in the Kentucky Derby won by California Chrome, but both were sidelined by injury.

Constitution, winner of the Grade I Florida Derby, was unbeaten when he was injured and recently finished fourth in an allowance race for trainer Todd Pletcher that was his return to racing. Hoppertunity won the Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn and second to California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby, finished second in a Santa Anita allowance race for Bob Baffert in his return to racing.

Both are high quality members of a strong crop of 3-year-olds and each will be looking to use the Clark as a springboard to success in their 4-year-old season.

The Bob Baffert-trained Hoppertunity missed the Kentucky Derby with an injury, but hopes to have a big moment at Churchill Downs in the Clark.

The Bob Baffert-trained Hoppertunity missed the Kentucky Derby with an injury, but hopes to have a big moment at Churchill Downs in the Clark.

Saturday’s race offers a good opportunity for those horses to announce that they will forces to be reckoned with in 2015.

Thursday’s Falls City, which also dates to the first racing meet in 1875, will be run for the 99th time and its biggest star is the kind of horse that fuels dreams of fans, trainers and owners. Don’t Tell Sophia was purchased at Keeneland’s 2009 September Sale for $1,000 by trainer and co-owner Phil Sims and this year she has emerged as a star. Don’t Tell Sophia won Keeneland’s Grade I Juddmonte Spinster and was a flying second to Longines Kentucky Oaks winner Untapable in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Santa Anita.

Don’t Tell Sophia will attempt to end her season on a high note, but must turn back Molly Morgan – winner of Churchill Downs’ Grade II Chilukki and Fleur De Lis for hometown trainer Dale Romans – and eight other rivals.

Saturday’s “Stars of Tomorrow II” races are headed by the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club and Grade II Golden Rod for fillies are stops on their respective “Road to the Kentucky Derby” and Road to the Kentucky Oaks” points series. Both races are run at 1 1/16 miles.

The Kentucky Jockey Club appears primed to attract a full gate of promising 2-year-olds whose connections have an eye on next spring’s Run for the Roses.

Among the youngsters I’m most excited to see in that race are the Neil Howard-trained Eagle, Kenny McPeek’s Jumpin Frac Flash, three-time Kentucky Derby-winner Bob Baffert’s California shipper Lord Nelson, trainer Steve Asmussen’s Iroquois Stakes winner Lucky Player and Imperia, who is set to make his first start on dirt for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.

Fillies looking to make the next step in the Golden Rod that have caught my eye include the Dale Romans-trained Pocahontas Stakes winner Cristina’s Journey, McPeek’s Kathmanblu and the Wayne Catalano-trained West Coast Belle.

The stakes races will be fun on Saturday, but you could be just as likely to see future Derby or Oaks contender on the races in on the “Stars of Tomorrow” undercard.

A field of 23 wagering interests for the opening pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager was released on Tuesday and wagering in the three-day pool opens on Friday and concludes at the conclusion of Sunday’s closing day of Fall Meet racing at Churchill Downs.  It’s just the second Derby Futures pool to be conducted over Thanksgiving Weekend, and the roster of wagering interests and free past performance information on those horses is available at www.KentuckyDerby.com.

Enjoy the moments of the Thanksgiving celebration and the closing week of the Fall Meet at Churchill Downs.  But it’s definitely a good think to look down the road as, at the end of Sunday’s final program of the meet, only 153 days will remain until Kentucky Derby 141.

Photos by REED PALMER | Churchill Downs