Hoppertunity, a major contender for the 2014 Kentucky Derby until he went to the sidelines with an injury days before that race, returned to Churchill Downs on Friday to lead a 1-2-3 finish by 3-year-olds in his half-length victory under jockey Martin Garcia in the 140th running of the $551,000, Grade I Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare for 3-year-olds and up.
Trained by Bob Baffert, Hoppertunity tracked early leader Constitution in second before moving past that rival in the upper homestretch and then held-off the late bid of Protonico to win by a half-length. Constitution, another 3-year-old eliminated from consideration for last spring’s Kentucky Derby because of injury, held on to finish third. Both Protonico and Constitution are trained by Todd Pletcher.
Owned by Mike Pegram, Karl Watson and Paul Weitman, Hoppertunity covered 1 1/8-miles over a fast track in 1:49.88 and returned $6.40, 4.60 and $3.40 as the 5-2 favorite in the field of nine. Protonico, who rallied from sixth for his runner-up under jockey Joe Bravo, returned $6.00 and $4.60. Constitution easily held third under Javier Castellano and paid $3.80 to show.
Hoppertunity, a Kentucky-bred son of Any Given Saturday, became the second consecutive 3-year-old to defeat older rivals in the Clark Handicap, and the fourth of his age group to win the race in the last decade. Will Take Charge, later named the champion 3-year-old of 2013, scored a dramatic victory in last year’s renewal. Blame won the 2009 Clark, and the 3-year-old Magna Graduate took the race in 2005.
With the victory Hoppertunity improved his record to 3-2-0 in seven races, all run during 2014. The winner’s share of $327,955 improved his earnings to $950,675. It was the second stakes victory for Hoppertunity, who earlier won the Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn Park, but the Clark was his first Grade I triumph and his first win against older horses. He had finished second to eventual Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby (GI) and was the 6-1 second choice in the morning line odds after being entered in the Kentucky Derby, but Baffert removed him from consideration for that race after a foot injury was detected.
Constitution and Hoppertunity, the top two betting choices in the Clark, controlled the spotlight from the start as the latter quickly jumped to the lead and held a two-length advantage over the stalking Hoppertunity in the early stages of the race. Castellano and Constitution led the field through modest fractions of :24.30 for the quarter, a half-mile in :49.04 and six furlongs in 1:13. Garcia guided Hoppertunity alongside the leader on the far turn and swung six-wide at the head of the stretch to assume the lead. Easter Gift made the first move on the leaders, but he faltered midway around the far turn as Protonico geared-up a late run to become the primary threat to the top two. Constitution dug-in along the rail before faltering late, while Protonico gradually cut into Hoppertunity’s lead, but never threated to pass the eventual winner.
In a year during which members of the crop of 3-year-old Thoroughbreds have won most of their major races against older horses, including a triumph by the Baffert-trained Bayern in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) in which the first six finishers were members of that age group, the Clark continued the trend. Hoppertunity, Protonico and Constitution were the only 3-year-olds in the race, and a margin of 1 ¼ lengths separated 2-3 finishers Protonico and Constitution. It was another six lengths back to the 4-year-old Pick of the Litter, who finished fourth.
The victory in the Clark Handicap by Hoppertunity was the third in the race for Baffert, the Hall of Fame trainer who saddled Silver Charm, the winner of the 1997 Kentucky Derby, to take the race in 1998 and won the 1996 Clark with Isitingood. It was the second Clark win for Pegram, who was also the co-owner of Isitingood, and the first victory in the race for Garcia.
The Clark Handicap is named for Churchill Downs founder Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark and, like the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and the Longines Kentucky Oaks, has been run annually since the track’s first race meeting in 1875.
CLARK HANDICAP QUOTES
BOB BAFFERT, trainer of HOPPERTUNITY (winner), via telephone from a suite at the Rose Bowl watching the UCLA/Stanford game: “That was great. He ran great today. I was surprised that they bet him down like that (he was the 2.20-1 favorite). He was ready.
“All I know is that stretch has been a killer for me but that horse was bred to run a mile-and-an-eighth and a mile-and-a-quarter.
“The thing about Hoppertunity is that he’s sort of a one-paced kind of horse and the way he ran off his first race … he was just training really well, you know. I was just yelling ‘Hold on!’ I was watching on my phone so I couldn’t see it very well. But you know what? I really wasn’t worried because about 50 yards from the wire – (watching the race) on a delay – I got a text that said, ‘Congrats.’ That’s why I really wasn’t worried about (Protonico) looming up.
Q: Can you put into perspective coming out of the Kentucky Derby two days before the race and now winning the Clark over the same track? “You just have to take it. In this game you have to take the wins and losses, bad trips and everything in stride. When it happens, it happens. You deal with it and go on. We’ve been on both ends and you learn to deal with it and just go on.”
Q: What was he actually sidelined with? “He had an old quarter crack. When we took him in (to Rood and Riddle), he was off and getting better. Dr. (Larry Bramlage) said the foot had an old little chip in his ankle. I was going to miss some days with him but I wouldn’t have been able to run him in the Preakness so I just pulled the plug. We had him there so we took it out and then brought him back. The Belmont was the race I was really hoping for but …
“He’ll get better with age so we’re happy. We’ve got him and Bayern.”
MARTIN GARCIA, jockey of HOPPERTUNITY (winner): “It had been a while since he’d run. The day he ran seven-eighths (of a mile on Oct. 29 at Santa Anita), I think it was a little short for him. I knew today was going to be a really, really big race for him. We know that he’s a really good horse.
There were about four horses (in the field) that had been running with really good horses. I knew the one on the lead (Constitution) was the most dangerous. I just wanted to follow him.”
MIKE PEGRAM, co-owner of HOPPERTUNITY (winner):
Q: Was it hard watching him win the Clark over this track and thinking about what could have been at the Kentucky Derby? “No, that’s racing. You never look back in this business. If you look back in this business you’re ready to retire. And we’re not ready to retire.”
“That’s why he didn’t race in the Derby. You have an abundance of caution and hope for the best. It just goes to show you that if you take care of them they’ll take care of you.
“Bobby (Baffert) is the boss and he knows these animals. That’s why he’s in the Hall of Fame. He brought him here. He was ready and he showed it today. That makes you feel good and you always feel good for the horse.”
Q: What were you thinking down the stretch? “I knew this one was a fighter. There’s one thing about it: Bobby Baffert doesn’t run too many short horses. And this horse wasn’t short today. When he was challenged, he had a little more left. It was just a good feeling. I love Kentucky!”
TODD PLETCHER, trainer of PROTONICO (second) and CONSTITUTION (third), via telephone from New York: “I thought they both ran well. Constitution was maybe just a tad headstrong and Churchill is not always the most speed conducive track so I would have liked to have seen him settle just a touch more. But I thought he showed some guts when those horses came to him and he kept trying. You know, he’s still a very lightly-raced horse with, hopefully, a big future.
“Protonico, I thought it was another big effort from him. He’s becoming more and more consistent and I think he’s continuing to work his way up the ranks.”
JOE BRAVO, jockey of PROTONICO (second): “He ran great, he’s a really nice horse . Everything set up good. I take my hat off to Hoppertunity. I may have underestimated him when I came to him at the eighth pole. Todd (Pletcher) knew we had a nice horse, so he ran this three-year-old against the older horses and look what he had done. He’s got a big future, this three-year-old. In horse racing never think, just try your hardest.”
JAVIER CASTELLANO, jockey of CONSTITUTION (third): “I had a good trip. He broke good out of the gate. He’s a speed horse so he likes to be involved up front with the horses, and he did. We just got beat today. I’m proud of the way he did it. He’s a good horse. He’s a strong horse and I think in the future he will make a very great horse.”
COREY LANERIE, jockey of PICK OF THE LITTER (fourth): “With my post position I had to kind of ease back a little bit in the first turn to get over and save some ground, and it compromised me a little bit because they went so slow up front. But other than that I had a really smooth trip right up the fence. Just wasn’t fast enough.”
JOEL ROSARIO, jockey of Easter Gift (fifth): “We got a good trip. It looked like they were going slow and we were at the back of the pack for a little bit so he took me closer to the front. It looked like he was going comfortably. The horse in front just kept on going.”
ROBBY ALBARADO, jockey of Departing (seventh): “We got a beautiful trip. He just didn’t fire for some reason. He’s a lot better horse than what he showed today. It’s mind boggling.”