When Robert V. LaPenta’s Easter Gift finished a solid third to eventual 3-year-old champion Will Take Charge and future Hall of Famer Game On Dude in last year’s Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Health Care (Grade I), trainer Chad Brown was hoping that big things could be on the horizon.

A year later, Brown feels the same way about Easter Gift and the 5-year-old son of Hard Spun will travel from New York for another Clark Handicap bid on Friday. But the months between his Louisville visits have not been what Brown had hoped.

Easter Girt earned his spot in the 2014 Clark with a sharp Belmont Park allowance win on Oct. 12, his first win in only three outings on the year. He rallied strongly under Joel Rosario to win that 1 1/16-mile allowance by a head and among the horses he ran past that day was Twin Creek Racing Stables LLC and WinStar Farm’s Constitution, the 3-year-old winner of the Florida Derby (GI) who is also expected to compete in the Clark. Constitution suffered the first loss of his career that day when he ran fourth that day in his first outing since the March 29 Florida Derby.

But Easter Gift’s wins was preceded by an eighth-place run in the July 27 Monmouth Cup (GIII), his first race of the year, and a dull sixth-place finish in Saratoga’s Aug. 17 Alydar, a race in which he been the runner-up a year earlier.

“He had some physical issues that delayed his return as a 5-year-old,” Brown said via telephone from New York. “When he returned to the races he was training well, but he didn’t run well in his first two times I ran him this year and I’m not exactly sure why. He had been training well and came out of the races well, but he didn’t fire.”

But the third time out turned out to be the charm for Easter Gift, and convinced Brown that his back-in-form horse deserved another shot in the Clark, a race in which he was beaten by only two lengths by Will Take Charge and Game On Dude.

“He ran so well in it last year and was beaten by two really good horses and he has experience over the track at Churchill,” Brown said.  “He was in better form last year heading into the Clark, however his most recent race, the allowance win, was okay and he seems within reach now of getting to his best numbers. That was one of his best numbers, so he should be right there.”

Rosario, who is looking for his first win in the Clark, was aboard Brown’s veteran in last year’s Clark and will be back in the saddle on Friday.

Easter Gift completed his serious training for the Clark with a five-furlong move 1:01.05 on Friday at Belmont Park.

Candidates for Friday’s Clark that took advantage of good weather to work in preparation for the race included the Dale Romans-trained duo of Fayette (GIII) winner Pick of the Litter and multiple stakes winner Prayer for Relief, who finished 12th in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI). Pick of the Litter breezed five furlongs in 1:02.80 and Prayer for Relief breezed the same distance in 1:02.40.

If he runs, Friday’s Clark bid will be the third for Prayer for Relief.  He finished ninth behind Wise Dan in 2011 and was last of nine in its 2013 running.

Knights Nation, a recent allowance race winner at Churchill Downs, breezed a half-mile in :49.20 for trainer Dallas Stewart.

At Santa Anita, Rebel (GII) winner Hoppertunity had his final workout, a five-furlong move in 1:00. “He’s ready,” said trainer Bob Baffert, who has given the call to Martin Garcia. The 3-year-old will arrive on a California flight that should be in Louisville on Monday at 2 p.m.

Easter Gift, Constitution and Protonico will arrive from New York on a Tuesday flight that will land in Lexington around 4 p.m.

Pletcher on Constitution: “He needed the race in his comeback. He got tired. He’s trained well since and I believe he’s back to the 1 1/8-mile form he showed back in the Florida Derby.”

CLARK ’CAP, 2-YEAR-OLD STAKES FIELDS

Horses known to be under consideration for the 140th running of the Clark Handicap for 3-year-olds and up at 1 1/8 miles (with assigned weight and trainer): Departing (121 pounds, Al Stall Jr.), Pick of the Litter (121, Dale Romans), Constitution (119, Todd Pletcher), Hoppertunity (118, Bob Baffert), Prayer for Relief (118, Romans), Easter Gift (117, Chad Brown), Protonico (117, Pletcher), Midnight Aria (115, Nick Gonzalez), Knights Nation (114, Dallas Stewart) and Looking Cool (112, Murat Sancal). Entries will be taken Wednesday morning.

Horses known to be under consideration for the 88th running of the Kentucky Jockey Club (GII) for 2-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles (in order of earnings with trainer): International Star (Mike Maker), W V Jetsetter (George Weaver), Imperia (Kiaran McLaughlin), The Truth or Else (Kenny McPeek), Lord Nelson (Bob Baffert), Lucky Player (Steve Asmussen), Danny Boy (Dale Romans), Majestico (D. Wayne Lukas), Sky Hero (Mark Casse), Eagle (Neil Howard), Sharm (Lukas), Flashaway (Casse), Tough Customer (Wayne Catalano), War Point (Billy Gowan), Unblunted (Michael McCarthy), Keen Ice (Romans), Toasting Master (Catalano), Jumpin Frac Flash (McPeek), Instant Replay (Catalano), Moonlight Bandit (Casse), War Story (Tom Amoss), Chip Leader (Catalano) and Astounding (Catalano). A maximum 14 will be allowed to run. Entries will be taken Thursday morning.

Horses known to be under consideration for the 71st running of the Golden Rod (GII) for 2-year-old fillies at 1 1/16 miles (in order of earnings with trainer): Cristina’s Journey (Dale Romans), Heart’s Song (Bill Connelly), Harlan’s Destiny (Wayne Catalano), Simply Confection (Jinks Fires), West Coast Belle (Catalano), I’m A Chatterbox (Kenny McPeek), Ancient Goddess-FR (John Terranova II), Movie Mystery (Catalano), Kathballu (McPeek), Lavender Chrissie (Romans), Keen Pauline (Romans), Martz (Ron Moquett), No Fault of Mine (Chris Block) and Super Saks (D. Wayne Lukas). A maximum 14 will be allowed to run. Entries will be taken Thursday morning.

CARROLL STILL BEAMING AFTER STRIKE CHARMER’S CARDINAL ROMP

Veteran trainer David Carroll’s 2014 racing season will fall a bit short of being his best, but a beaming smile that seemed to illuminate his barn on Sunday morning was proof that there are few things more effective in lifting one’s spirits than a big run by a good horse in an important race.

Carroll’s smile was courtesy of Courtlandt FarmsStrike Charmer, who rallied from just off the pace under jockey Chris Landeros to score an easy two-length victory in Saturday’s $119,700 Cardinal Handicap (GIII) for fillies and mares at 1 1/8 miles on Churchill Downs’ “good” Matt Winn Turf Course.

“It keeps me in business a little while more,” Carroll said with a laugh. “I’m happy for Chris; he gave her a great ride. I’m really happy for Mr. Adam, and I’m happy for me, too.”

It was the first stakes victory for the homebred daughter of Smart Strike and it came in her 10th career start. She had run a solid second to Cardinal favorite I’m Already Sexy in the Kentucky Downs Ladies Turf in her previous start and her stakes debut just over two months earlier.

Carroll believes the time between to the two races enabled Strike Charmer to come into the Cardinal as a fresh horse, and that was a positive factor in her breakthrough victory. He credited owner Don Adam for the suggestion to freshen Strike Charmer.

“Ideally I would have liked to run her at Keeneland, but he was right,” Carroll said. “The last few weeks she’s been training beautifully and has been telling us she was ready to go.”

The patient handling that helped Strike Charmer achieve her big moment on Saturday will continue. Carroll said there will be no attempt to find another spot for the filly even though she is in career-best form as the year winds down.

“We’ll probably just let her down now,” he said. “We’ll get her down to Fair Grounds and we might pick a couple of spots for her down there before we come back. Then it opens up again for her and we’ll ship around.  She takes her course with her – she travels well, she runs well and she’s never run a bad race.”

The Cardinal triumph improved her career record to 2-2-1 in 10 races and boosted her earnings to $206,835. The win also was a tonic for Carroll, who scored his first graded stakes win his first since Acoma took Keeneland’s Grade I Spinster 2010. Carroll entered the Cardinal with 11 wins and earnings of $441,957 from 81 starters in 2014 – his lowest annual win total since he won with 11-of-91 starters in 1996. Those numbers made Strike Charmer’s Cardinal victory one to cherish.

NAME ORIGINS

The Falls City Handicap on Nov. 27 was created by Churchill Downs founder Col. M. Lewis Clark as one of four stakes events that were developed for the inaugural meet in 1875. The name, Falls City, is a reference to the nearby Ohio River falls or rapids that drop some 30 feet just west of current downtown Louisville. The falls are the reason the city grew as riverboats were forced to unload their cargo on shore before reaching the falls. Clark’s original stakes schedule included the Kentucky Derby on Monday, May 17, 1875; the Kentucky Oaks on Wednesday, May 19, 1875; the Falls City Handicap on Thursday, May 20, 1875; and Clark on closing day Saturday, May 22, 1875. The race, which was not run 1878-81, 1885-91, 1893-1910 and1928-40, has been run on Thanksgiving Day since 1978.

KENTUCKY DERBY FUTURE WAGER POOL 1 FIELD ANNOUNCED TUESDAY

A reminder: Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager will open Friday, Nov. 28 at noon EST and continue through Sunday, Nov. 30 at 6 p.m. EST. The 23 individual wagering interests will be announced Tuesday (Nov. 25).

THANKSGIVING DAY NEARLY SOLD OUT

Reserved indoor premium seating at Churchill Downs for Thanksgiving Day is nearly sold out. The only tickets that remain are in the Winn Show Place Lounge on the second floor clubhouse, which range from $26 to $60 and can include the Thanksgiving Chef’s Table buffet.

There are still some interior dining options left for “Black Friday” on Nov. 28, featuring the 140th running of the $500,000-added Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (Grade I). Tickets to the Skye Terrace are $34.50, which includes the Chef’s Table buffet. Also, tickets to the Matt Winn Dining Room are $15, which includes a reserved seat in the dining room plus an outdoor reserved third-floor box. Guests have the option for a buffet or to order a la carte, but a $15 minimum purchase is required.

Millionaires Row 4 with a buffet ($34.50) and the Matt Winn Dining Room have availability for Stars of Tomorrow II on Saturday, Nov. 29 and closing day on Sunday, Nov. 30.

CLOSING WEEK AT CHURCHILL DOWNS

Wednesday, Nov. 26 (Day 22 of 26)

  • 11 races from 12:40-5:04 p.m. (Gates 11:30 a.m.)
  • Feature (Race 10 at 5:08 p.m.): $45,000 alw opt clm, f&m, 1 M (T)

Thursday, Nov. 27 (Day 23 of 26) – Thanksgiving Day

  • 12 races from 11:30 a.m. to 4:50 p.m. (Gates 11:30 a.m.)
  • Thanksgiving Day at Churchill Downs has been a Louisville tradition since 1969 where more than 7,000 turkey dinners are served with all the trimmings, making it the largest number anywhere in the region
  • Feature (Race 11 at 4:22 p.m.): 99th running of $200,000-added Falls City Handicap (GII), f&m, 1 1/8 M

Friday, Nov. 28 (Day 24 of 26) – Clark Handicap Day

  • 12 races from 12:40-6:03 p.m. (Gates 11:30 a.m.)
  • Feature: 140th running of $500,000-added Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (GI), 3&up, 1 1/8 M
  • Clark Handicap, a “Black Friday” tradition dating back to 1978, annually lures some of the top older horses in North America and is the centerpiece of four stakes events cumulatively worth $1.1 million that will be contested over the Thanksgiving/closing weekend
  • Special Wager: Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool 1 (opens Friday, Nov. 28 at 12 p.m. ET and closes Sunday, Nov. 30 at 6 p.m. ET)

Saturday, Nov. 29 (Day 25 of 26) – Stars of Tomorrow II

  • 12 races from 12:40-6:03 p.m. (Gates 11:30 a.m.)
  • 10th annual Stars of Tomorrow II program which is entirely devoted to hopeful 2-year-old stars that have aspirations of trail-blazing their way to next year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and Longines Kentucky Oaks
  • Stars of Tomorrow programs, inaugurated in 2005, have helped launched the careers of numerous graded stakes winners, including 34 Grade I winners and 20 millionaires led by 2010 Kentucky Derby champ Super Saver; 2011 Preakness and 2012 Met Mile and Clark Handicap winner Shackleford; 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra; 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic and 2013 Stephen Foster Handicap hero Fort Larned; 2012 Kentucky Oaks winner Believe You Can; and 2013 champion 3-year-old Will Take Charge
  • Co-Feature: 88th running of $200,000-added Kentucky Jockey Club (GII), 2yo, 1 1/16 M, RTKD Points: 10-4-2-1
  • Co-Feature: 71st running of $200,000-added Golden Rod (GII), 2yo f, 1 1/16 M, RTKO Points: 10-4-2-1
  • Special Wager: Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool 1 (opens Friday, Nov. 28 at 12 p.m. ET and closes Sunday, Nov. 30 at 6 p.m. ET)
  • Pigskins and Ponies featuring college football games on Plaza video board (University of Kentucky at University of Louisville at noon); drink specials ($2 Bud/Bud Light, $3 Stella Artois and $1 Pepsi products and bottled water); tailgate-style food from Plaza Grill; and free admission to college students with current student I.D.

Sunday, Nov. 30 (Day 26 of 26) – Closing/Fan Appreciation Day

  • 10 races from 12:40-5:04 p.m. (Gates 11:30 a.m.)
  • Feature: TBA
  • Fan Appreciation Day
  • Free general admission
  • Free 2015 Churchill Downs Wall Calendar that features classic Churchill Downs and Kentucky Derby imagery to the first 5,000 fans through admission gates courtesy of Humana
  • $1 domestic draft beer (16 oz.)
  • $1 Pepsi product fountain drinks (22 oz.)
  • $1 bottled water
  • $1 hot dogs
  • Salute Fall Meet Champion Jockey, Trainer and Owner between races
  • Special Wager: Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool 1 (opens Friday, Nov. 28 at 12 p.m. ET and closes Sunday, Nov. 30 at 6 p.m. ET)
  • Who’s the Champ? Betting Challenge in the ITW area on the second floor of the Grandstand. $35 to enter ($30 for TSC Elite members) and includes official program and meal voucher. Registration from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the Churchill Downs Lounge. $2 Win/Place mythical wagers on Races 3-8. First prize: Fully-paid spot in the Horse Player World Series at The Orleans Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas on March 25-28, including a four-night hotel stay and $250 travel voucher. Second prize: $500 betting voucher. Third prize: $250 betting voucher.

Click on this link for a PDF copy of Churchill Downs' Nov. 23 Race Day Notes, which include additional data and statistical information.

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