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Looking Forward to Clark Handicap Day

The 3-year-old Blame (second from left) won the 2009 Clark and returned to Churchill Downs 11 months later to defeat Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

The 3-year-old Blame (second from left) won the 2009 Clark and returned to Churchill Downs 11 months later to defeat Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Most of the Thoroughbred racing world has heard that the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and the Longines Kentucky Oaks, renewed on successive days each spring at Churchill Downs, have a history that spans 140 years.

And that history covers 140 consecutive years – putting them in a tie for the honor of America’s longest continuously-held sports events. The Derby always gets the nod as the answer to that trivia question as it remains one of a handful of true “bucket list” events in American sports and entertainment.

But there is an oft-forgotten race that also shares that history, and its 140th consecutive running is coming up soon.

The $500,000-added Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare – named for Churchill Downs founder Meriwether Lewis Clark – will again head the racing menu beneath the Twin Spires on Friday, Nov. 28. The Black Friday card is the biggest racing day of the track’s Fall Meet, and the thousands who have wisely waved-off the temptation to spend the day in shopping malls have been reward with some remarkable performances during its previous 139 years.

The Clark in the early of the 21st century has been nothing short of spectacular, with a pair of runnings sealing Eclipse Award championships for 3-year-olds trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas. He saddled the regally-bred filly Surfside in 2000, when she earned the honor of champion 3-year-old filly by beating older males in the mile and an eighth Clark. Last season, Lukas’ late-blooming Will Take Charge launched a sizzling stretch charge to nip future Hall of Famer Game On Dude in the race’s last strides. He was rewarded with the Eclipse for champion 3-year-old.

Pat Day earned his fourth Clark win aboard Surfside, which placed the Hall of Famer in a tie for all-time Clark victories with early Derby hero and a fellow Hall of Famer Isaac Murphy – perhaps the greatest of the African-American jockeys who dominated the Derby in its early years.

Eventual 3-year-old champion Will Take Charge (#7) edged Game On Dude in the dramatic 2013 Clark Handicap.

Eventual 3-year-old champion Will Take Charge (#7) edged Game On Dude in the dramatic 2013 Clark Handicap.

In between those recent Lukas bookends, the 21st century Clark has produced these highlights:

2012 – Shackleford, winner of the 2011 Preakness, ended his career with a front-running romp that provided Louisville-born trainer Dale Romans with his first win in one of the biggest races at his hometown track.

2011 – Mort Fink’s Wise Dan served notice of good things to come when he collected his first Grade I win in the Clark. He would return to grass and earn the next two “Horse of the Year” crowns.

2010 – In a running that still sparks debate, Successful Dan – Wise Dan’s older half-brother – finished first but was disqualified to third in a rough-and-tumble Clark renewal in which stewards elevated Chicago-based Giant Oak to the top spot.

2009 – The 3-yearold Blame provided legendary Claiborne Farm with its first Clark win. Less than a year later, Blame would hold off the previously unbeaten Zenyatta to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic beneath the Twin Spires.

2008 – Einstein, one of the most versatile horses to win the Clark, got the job done on dirt for trainer Helen Pitts Blasi. A grass runner most of his career, also won the Grade I Woodford Reserve Turf Classic that year – his first of back-to-back wins in that race.

2006 – Premium Tap, third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to Invasor a month earlier, won the Clark by 7 ½ lengths in record time of 1:47.39 for trainer John Kimmel.

2004 – Saint Liam invaded from New York to win the race, a precursor to the brilliance he would display the following year when he would win the Breeders’ Cup Classic and be named Horse of the Year.

2002 – Chilean-bred star Lido Palace edged 42-1 local hero Crafty Shaw to win by a head in the final race of his career for Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel.

A peek into Clark history reveals that its roster of winners shares the names of many 3-year-olds that also won the Kentucky Derby. The Derby, Oaks and Clark were all run in the track’s brief meet in those early years. Derby legends Old Rosebud and Exterminator were winning the race as late as the early 1920’s.

But Exterminator’s 1922 Clark triumph was the last by a Derby winner until Calumet Farm’s Triple Crown winner Whirlaway returned to take the race as a 4-year-old in 1942.

There not be another winner of both races until 1998, when Bob Baffert brought the popular Silver Charm back for the third of his four career starts at Churchill Downs. The gray future Hall of Famer, who often waited on competition in his best races, ran true to form in in a riveting Clark.

The Black Friday crowd, which had heavily favored the Derby winner at odds of 3-to-10, briefly went silent in mid-stretch when the upset-minded Littlebitlively and jockey Calvin Borel – the latter a decade away from his Kentucky Derby heroics – collared Silver Charm and briefly gained the lead. But Silver Charm, true to his heart-pounding ways, fought back under Gary Stevens and won by a head.

In my three decades of Clark Handicaps, the Silver Charm victory is an easy choice as my favorite, but it has been so good during that stretch that it’s difficult to separate the rest of its renewals.

This year’s Clark is positioned for another memorable running. Nominations for the race closed on Wednesday, Nov. 12 – after this piece went to press. With the Eclipse Awards for champion 3-year-old and Horse in the Year still uncertain after the rugged 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita won by Bayern, the Clark looms as an attractive possibility for horses hoping to end their esaon on a high note or, as Surfside and Will Take Charge did for Lukas, aim for the race with an eye toward a championship.

With a month between the Classic and the Clark, there would be significant time for rest should the likes of Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome, previously unbeaten Shared Relief or Bayern decide try for one more win. Baffert, who conditions Bayern and has a pair of wins in the Clark, would seem most likely to take that swing, but we’ll know more when the nominations are released.

But regardless of what happens with that trio, you can count on a strong Clark field of accomplished veterans mixed with rising stars. My guess more than two weeks out is that some horses who competed in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Dirt Mile could be in the picture. Cigar Street, winner of the Homecoming Classic at Churchill Downs in September, seems a strong Clark candidate, along with the Romans-trained Pickofthelitter and Claiborne’s Departing, a close 1-2 in Keeneland’s Fayette Stakes.

So I’m a little anxious while awaiting the release of the names of the Clark’s nominees. Looking back over the roster of Clark highlights between 2000 and 2013, and it seem fairly safe to say that something special could agaom happen on the day after Thanksgiving.

Black Friday has always been Clark Handicap Day to me and lots of other longtime fans. I can’t wait to see what this historic race, hitting its stride again after 140 years, has in store.

Photos by REED PALMER | Churchill Downs