Clark Handicap Regains Grade I Status; Pocahontas, American Turf Receive American Graded Stakes Committee Upgrades

Dec 03, 2009 John Asher

Churchill Downs’ Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare, a race that shares a rich history with the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (Grade I) and the Kentucky Oaks (GI), has been elevated to Grade I status by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders’ Association’s (“TOBA”) American Graded Stakes Committee (“AGSC”).

The Clark Handicap, a 1 1/8-mile race for 3-year-olds and up, was run for the first time in 1875 during the inaugural meet of Churchill Downs, which was then known as the Louisville Jockey Club. Like the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, the Clark has been run annually and without interruption since and was accorded Grade I status for the second time when the AGSC met Dec. 2 in Lexington, Ky.

Two other Churchill Downs stakes races – the American Turf Stakes for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles on turf, and the Pocahontas, a one-mile race for 2-year-old fillies – were raised from Grade III to Grade II status. One race was the downgraded: the Jefferson Cup, previously a Grade II race, was accorded Grade III status for 2010.

“We are very pleased that the American Graded Stakes Committee has recognized the excellence of the Clark Handicap and accorded Grade I status to one of our track’s most important races,” said Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs. “We have long felt that the Clark ranked with America’s top races for older horses and applaud the committee’s decision. The upgrade of the Clark and accompanying elevation of the Pocahontas and American Turf to Grade II status are tributes to both the strength of our racing program and the efforts of owners and trainers who compete in our races every year. We thank the committee for its consideration and decisions, and our horsemen for their unwavering support.”

The Clark was previously accorded Grade I status for a single running in 2006, when the race was won by Premium Tap, winner of the Woodward (GI) and subsequent runner-up to “Horse of the Year” Invasor in the Dubai World Cup (GI).  The 2008 running was won by Einstein, a multiple Grade I winner on turf and, subsequently won the 2009 Santa Anita Handicap (GI) on the synthetic Pro-Ride surface at Santa Anita. Einstein was a finalist for the Eclipse Award for America’s top older horse that went to two-time “Horse of the Year” Curlin and defeated a Clark Handicap field that included two-time Whitney Handicap (GI) winner Commentator.

The 2007 running of the Clark saw A.P. Arrow knock off Grade I winner Brass Hat; Magna Graduate edged Suave in 2006; and Saint Liam defeated Grade I winners Seek Gold and Perfect Drift in its 2005 running. The latter was the first stakes victory for Saint Liam, who would win the Breeders’ Cup Classic the following year to cap a campaign in which he earned “Horse of the Year” honors. Other notable recent Clark Handicap winners include Overbrook Farm’s Surfside, who defeated older males in 2000 on her way to earning an Eclipse Award as America’s champion 3-year-old filly; multiple Grade I winner Lido Palace, a multiple Grade I winner who gave the late Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel his only Clark victory; and Robert and Beverly Lewis’ 1997 Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm, who won the 1998 renewal to become the 14th Kentucky Derby winner to win both races.

The 2008 Pocahontas saw multiple Sara Louise, winner of this year’s Top Flight (GII) defeat Rachel Alexandra. The runner-up would go on to win the Kentucky Oaks (GI) and defeat males in the Preakness (GI), Haskell Invitational and the Woodward (GI), becoming the first 3-year-old filly ever to win the latter. Rachel Alexandra has not lost since her Pocahontas setback and is a leading candidate for 2009 American “Horse of the Year.” Pure Clan, who won the race in 2007, is a two-time Grade I winner on turf with wins American Oaks at Hollywood Park at 3 and this year’s Flower Bowl at Belmont Park. Stellar Jayne, the 2003 Pocahontas winner, would later score Grade I wins in the Coaching Club American Oaks, Gazelle Handicap and Ruffian Handicap.

The roster of recent winners of the American Turf, a regular fixture on the Kentucky Oaks undercard, includes Kitten’s Joy, who would defeat Prince Arch in 2004 on his way to earning an Eclipse Award that honored him as America’s turf champion. The runner-up would later win the Gulfstream Park Breeders’ Cup (GI) on turf. Multiple stakes winner Stream Cat won the race in 2006, but runner-up Go Between would go on to earn more than $2.9 million in a career that included victories in the Pacific Classic (GI) on synthetic Polytrack and the Virginia Derby (GII) on turf. The 2008 renewal went to Tizdejavu, over Sailor’s Cap and Nistle’s Crunch. The winner would go on to win the Jefferson Cup (GII) and American Derby (GII), while runner-up Sailor’s Cap would later win the Colonial Cup (GIII) and Poker Handicap (GIII) and Nistle’s Crunch would win the Commonwealth Turf (GIII) at Churchill Downs. Orthodox defeated Battle of Hastings to win the 2009 American Turf, with the latter going on to a strong campaign that included victories in the Colonial Turf Cup (GII) and Virginia Derby (GII).

With the elevation of the Clark Handicap, the Churchill Downs stakes schedule will include five Grade I events in 2010 (not including Breeders’ Cup World Championship races scheduled for Nov. 5-6, 2010). Along with the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks and the Clark Handicap, the Stephen Foster Handicap and the Humana Distaff, which retained their AGSC status as top-level events in American racing, are on the list of Grade I events to be run beneath the historic Twin Spires in 2010.

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