The major players for Friday’s 139th running of the $500,000-added Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (Grade I) are now in place at Churchill Downs following the early afternoon arrival of morning line favorite Game On Dude early Wednesday afternoon at Churchill Downs.
Game On Dude, who will attempt to solidify his credentials for consideration for the Eclipse Awards for Horse of the Year and champion older male, stepped off a van and onto the grounds of Churchill Downs at approximately 1:45 p.m. (all times Eastern).
The Bob Baffert-trained star flew from California to Lexington on a flight that arrived at 11:30 a.m., and then traveled to Louisville by van.
Skies were sunny when Game On Dude’s van arrived, but he was greeted by a temperature reading of 30 degrees and a stiff breeze that dropped the wind chill factor to near zero as he walked to his stall in Barn 33.
Baffert assistant Jim Barnes accompanied Game On Dude on his cross-country journey.
“He traveled very well,” Barnes said. “It was a pretty simple trip, other than having to ship from Lexington to here. But we’re good. It’s cold, but he’s happy and fresh.”
Game On Dude will attempt to increase his total of Grade I stakes victories to eight when he faces eight rivals in the 1 1/8-mile Clark Handicap. The race for 3-year-olds and up, like the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI) and the Longines Kentucky Oaks (GI), has been run annually without interruption since Churchill Downs opened in 1875 as the Louisville Jockey Club.
The arrival of Game On Dude, the 8-5 Clark favorite in handicapper Mike Battaglia’s morning line odds, completes the cast of nine entered in the Clark. His most prominent foe is Willis D. Horton’s Travers (GI) winner and Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) runner-up Will Take Charge, the 9-5 second choice in the Clark.
Others in the field (with morning line odds) include Magic City Thoroughbred Partners’ Golden Ticket (9-2), runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (GI) and dead-heat winner of the 2012 Travers; Bourbon Lane Stable’s Bourbon Courage (8-1), third to classic winner Shackleford in the 2012 Clark; Zayat Stable’s multiple graded stakes winner Prayer for Relief (12-1), winner of the Prairie Meadows Cornhusker (GIII); Joseph LaPenta’s New York invader Easter Gift (12-1), winner of the $250,000-added Mountainview at Penn National and the 2012 running of the $350,000 Smarty Jones (GIII) at Parx Racing; Donegal Racing’s Finnegans Wake (20-1), who will attempt to give trainer Dale Romans his second consecutive Clark triumph; Rigney Racing’s Our Double Play (20-1), who defeated Bourbon Courage in a recent Churchill Downs allowance race and won the Prairie Meadows Mile; and John D. Gunther and Eurowest Bloodstock Services’ Jaguar Paw (20-1), winner of the Three Coins Up at Belmont Park.
Game On Dude enters the Clark off a disappointing ninth-place finish as the favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 2 at Santa Anita. The loss snapped a six-race winning streak that included five wins in 2013, three of which were Grade I victories in the Santa Anita Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Pacific Classic.
The 6-year-old gelded son of Awesome Again is owned by a partnership that includes Bernie Schiappa, the Lanni Family Trust, Diamond Pride Stable of Major League Baseball great Joe Torre and Mercedes Stable. He brings a career record of 28-15-5-1 and earnings of $5,602,148 into Friday’s race.
LUKAS HAPPY WITH CLARK DRAW FOR WILL TAKE CHARGE – Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas has four career victories in both the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, but he will bid for only his second victory in the Clark Handicap when he saddles Willis D. Horton’s rising 3-year-old Will Take Charge in Friday’s 139th running of the race.
But there’s good karma for Lukas in Friday’s race in that his only previous win sealed an Eclipse Award championship for Overbrook Farm’s Surfside, who was named top 3-year-old filly of 2000 after she closed that campaign with a victory over older males in the Clark. Lukas hopes to nail down 3-year-old championship honors for Will Take Charge, whose yearlong body of work is highlighted by a strong second half of 2013 highlighted by wins in the Travers (GI) and the Pennsylvania Derby (GII) and a narrow loss to Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, where Lukas’ colt lost by only a nose.
Will Take Charge drew post seven in the nine-horse field for the Clark, and Lukas was OK with that development.
“I don’t think it’s too significant, going a mile-and-an-eighth,” Lukas said. “There’s such a blend of pace and closers that I don’t think it’ll make a lot of difference. It should be a fair break.”
While most of the pre-race talk focuses on the battle between Will Take Charge and accomplished older rival Game On Dude, Lukas sees the race as much more than a one-on-one showdown.
“It’s a good Clark,” Lukas said. “I would say it’s got more depth than some of them that we’ve had in the last few years. I think it’s a really good bunch. They’re talking about just those two horses, but there are some other horses in there that are pretty damn nice.”
Will Take Charge has a 4-2-0 record in 10 races this year with earnings on the season of $2,633,200. His lifetime slate stands at 5-3-0 in 14 races and his career bankroll is $2,727,371.
The Clark run by Will Take Charge will come 27 days after his big effort in the Breeders’ Cup, but Lukas has insisted since that race that his colt has thrived in the days since he returned to his home base at Churchill Downs. Lukas said that continues to be the case with two days to go before the final run of a memorable 2013 season for Will Take Charge.
“I’d love to do this,” Lukas said. “You always like to have things end up well, but I’m optimistic that we’ve made the right decision here. I’m looking forward to running him – I really am. He’s doing so well – I’m really looking forward to it.”
ASMUSSEN AD-LIBS: PRAYER FOR RELIEF, TAPITURE WORK FOR HOLIDAY STAKES RUNS – The wintry blast that has settled over Churchill Downs this week forced trainer Steve Asmussen out of his regular training schedule for two stars being pointed toward Thanksgiving Weekend races at Churchill Downs, but the Eclipse Award winner ad-libbed and worked both Clark Handicap contender Prayer for Relief and Kentucky Jockey Club (GII) hope Tapiture just after the track opened for training on Wednesday.
Zayat Stables’ Prayer for Relief breezed four furlongs over a fast surface in :50.40. Exercise rider Abel Flores was up when the 5-year-old son of Jump Start covered the distance in splits of :12.80 and :25.60 and galloped out five furlongs in 1:04.40.
The veteran Prayer for Relief has a career record of 23-7-5-4 and lifetime earnings of $1,530,405, which makes him one of three millionaires in the Clark. This will be the horse’s second attempt to land a Clark. He was trained by Bob Baffert when he finished ninth to Mort Fink’s future Horse of the Year Wise Dan in the 2011 Clark.
Ron Winchell’s Tapiture, who is winless in three races but ran a close third to Donegal Racing’s Cleburne in Churchill Downs’ Iroquois (GIII) in September, worked a half-mile under Flores in :50.60. Internal fractions for the son of Tapit were :12.60 for an eighth and :25 for the quarter.
Although he is searching for his first win, Tapiture has kept strong company in his races. He was runner-up to eventual Hopeful (GI) winner Strong Mandate in his Saratoga debut and ran third in the Iroquois in his next outing.
He disappointed in his most recent outing when he finished third as the favorite in a one-mile maiden race on “Stars of Tomorrow I” day on Oct. 27, the opening day of the Fall Meet. But the winner that day was Culprit, who will meet Tapiture again in the Kentucky Jockey Club.
WISE DAN TO BE PARADED ON SATURDAY – Reining Horse of the Year Wise Dan, a leading contender to repeat that honor after a second straight win in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (GI), will be paraded in the paddock at Churchill Downs on closing day, Saturday, Nov. 30.
Trainer Charlie LoPresti will van Wise Dan from his Keeneland barn in Lexington to Churchill Downs so local fans can show their appreciation to the 6-year-old gelding. His special appearance will occur between Races 3 and 4 around 1:15-1:45 p.m.
Wise Dan, owned and bred by Mort Fink, won six of his seven starts this year, including a pair of stakes at Churchill Downs: the $546,400 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (GI) on Kentucky Derby Day and the $168,450 Firecracker Handicap (GII) in late June.
His three-quarters of a length victory over Za Approval in the $1,840,000 Mile at Santa Anita on Nov. 2 improved his overall record to 19 wins in 27 starts. His $6,293,610 career bankroll ranks 22nd on the North American all-time earnings list.
Wise Dan, a six-time winner at Churchill Downs dating back to 2010, ranks third on the most current “Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings” – behind Black Caviar-AUS and Treve-FR – which ranks 3-year-olds and up that raced between Jan. 1 and Oct. 6.
BARN TALK – Jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. is off all mounts Wednesday at Churchill Downs to ride in a trio of stakes races at New Mexico’s Zia Park for trainer Steve Asmussen … Jockeys Dylan Davis, Brian Hernandez Jr. and Joe Rocco Jr. have stakes engagements Wednesday night at Penn National in their Thanksgiving Eve Racing Festival … Corey Lanerie is one of five finalists for the 2014 George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award that is annually presented at Santa Anita in mid-to-late March … HRTV will be on-site at Churchill Downs on Friday and Saturday for coverage of the Clark Handicap and Stars of Tomorrow II programs … Friday’s HRRNLive! Show from 3-7 p.m. ET on XM 208 and www.horseracingradio.net will include live coverage of the Clark Handicap … Reserved indoor premium seating at Churchill Downs is still available for Saturday.