Constitution and Hoppertunity, two auspicious 3-year-olds that were denied starts in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands because of ill-timed setbacks, look for redemption Friday at Churchill Downs against seven rivals in the 140th renewal of the $500,000-added Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (Grade I).
The Clark Handicap, one of the country’s most prestigious races for 3-year-olds and up and the centerpiece of a special 12-race “Black Friday” program at the famed Louisville racetrack, will go as Race 11 at approximately 5:35 p.m. (all times Eastern). Friday’s first race is 12:40 p.m.
Pick of the Litter and Departing, separated by a neck in the $200,000 Hagyard Fayette (GII) at Keeneland on Oct. 25, will be the 121-pound starting co-high weights, but Florida Derby (GI) winner Constitution – the lone Grade I-winner in the field of nine – and Rebel (GII) champ Hoppertunity are expected to attract plenty of attention from bettors.
Claiborne Farm and Adele B. Dilschneider’s 4-year-old gelding Departing, the multiple Grade II winner at 3 who finished third behind Moonshine Mullin and Will Take Charge in this year’s $552,500 Stephen Foster Handicap Presented by Abu Dhabi (GI), was made a mild 3-1 morning line for the Clark by Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia.
Constitution, who will shoulder 119 pounds, and Hoppertunity, at 118, are 7-2 co-second choices. Fayette champ Pick of the Litter is the 9-2 fourth betting choice.
The nine-horse Clark field from the rail out (with jockeys, assigned weight and morning line odds): Hoppertunity (Martin Garcia, 118, 7-2), Prayer for Relief (Ricardo Santana Jr., 118, 6-1), Knights Nation (Julien Leparoux, 114, 30-1), Departing (Robby Albarado, 121, 3-1), Easter Gift (Joel Rosario, 117, 8-1), Protonico (Joe Bravo, 117, 8-1), Constitution (Javier Castellano, 119, 7-2), Looking Cool (Chris Landeros, 112, 50-1) and Pick of the Litter (Corey Lanerie, 121, 9-2).
Twin Creeks Racing Stables LLC and WinStar Farm LLC’s Constitution returned to racing Oct. 12 after missing this year’s Triple Crown because of a slight hairline fracture in his right front cannon bone. The Tapit colt was sent off as the odds-on 2-5 favorite in his comeback in an allowance/optional claiming event at Belmont Park that was won by Clark rival Easter Gift. Constitution bobbled at the break but was keen to run off the layoff and quickly grabbed the lead to duel with Spa City Fever through the early stages of the 1 1/16-mile race. He was clearly fatigued down the stretch and finished fourth, 1 ½ lengths behind come-from-behind winner Easter Gift, for his first defeat in four starts. Overall, the Kentucky-bred has earned $653,600.
“Constitution needed the race in his comeback,” said six-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher, a two-time Clark winner with Magna Graduate (2005) and A.P. Arrow (2007). “He got tired. He’s trained well since (with four breezes over the Belmont Park training track) and I believe he’s back to the 1 1/8-mile form he showed back in the Florida Derby.”
When Constitution was declared from the Kentucky Derby in mid-April, Pletcher said: “This is one of the biggest disappointments of my career. I really feel Constitution was our biggest chance to win the Kentucky Derby since (2010 winner) Super Saver.”
Javier Castellano, who leads all North American jockeys with more than $24.1 million in earnings this year, has ridden Constitution in each start and will break from post position seven on Friday. Castellano piloted Quest to victory in the 2004 Clark.
Like Constitution, Mike Pegram, Karl Watson and Paul Weitman’s Hoppertunity missed an opportunity at Kentucky Derby glory. After taking Oaklawn’s $600,000 Rebel in March and finishing second behind eventual Kentucky Derby-winner California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby (GI), Hoppertunity was scratched two days before the Derby when a left-front foot issue was detected.
“It’s disappointing because I think he was very live,” three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert said at the time. “He likes this track. He trained well over it.”
The Kentucky-bred son of Any Given Saturday resumed training in September and made his return in a seven-furlong allowance optional claiming event on Oct. 29 at Santa Anita where he closed willingly to finish second and was beaten a half-length by stablemate Pimpernel.
Following a trio of subsequent workouts at Santa Anita, Hall of Famer Baffert declared, “He’s ready.” Overall, Hopperunity has earned $622,720 from a 2-2-0 record through six starts.
Martin Garcia, who guided Bayern to victory for Baffert in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI), will ride in place of Mike Smith, who will remain in Southern California to pilot Tom’s Tribute in the $250,000 Seabiscuit Handicap (GII) at Del Mar.
Hoppertinuty will break from the rail, and will attempt to give Baffert his third success in the Clark. The Southern California-based horseman saddled Isitingood to victory in 1996 and 1997 Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm in a return visit to Churchill Downs one year after being draped by roses.
Departing, who’ll start from stall four under Robby Albarado, has won half of his 14 starts and $1,588,169 under the care of trainer Al Stall Jr., who conditioned Dilschneider and Claiborne’s Blame to victory in the 2009 Clark. In addition to running second last time out in the Fayette, the son of War Front was runner-up to Cigar Street at Churchill Downs in the $135,500 Homecoming Classic on Sept. 27. He seeks his first win since taking a one-mile allowance/optional claiming at Churchill Downs on Wednesday of Derby Week.
At age 3, Departing won five of eight starts including the $750,000 Illinois Derby (GIII), $750,000 West Virginia Derby (GII) and $490,000 Super Derby (GII).
A victory by Departing on Friday would be a record-breaking conquest for legendary Claiborne Farm. The iconic Paris, Ky. racing and breeding operation shares the record for the most stakes victories (32) in the history of Churchill Downs with Calumet Farm, another Bluegrass legend now operated by Brad Kelley.
Crossed Sabres Farm’s Pick of the Litter, who split horses in deep stretch after a ground-saving trip to collect his first stakes win in the Fayette, will break from the far outside under the Fall Meet’s leading rider Corey Lanerie. The Dale Romans-trained 4-year-old has finished first or second in nine of his 18 starts and banked $392,662.
Romans, who won the 2012 Clark with Shackleford, also will start Zayat Stables’ hard-knocking 6-year-old Prayer for Relief, who hopes to rebound from a 12th-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic four weeks ago. The four-time graded stakes winner will make his third Clark appearance. He finished ninth of 13 in 2011 and last of nine a year ago. The Kentucky-bred son of Jump Start leads all starters with a bankroll of $1,907,938 from eight wins, six seconds and seven thirds in 34 career starts. Ricardo Santana Jr., who’ll tack 118 pounds, will ride from post two.
Easter Gift’s sharp victory over Constitution at Belmont Park last time out encouraged trainer Chad Brown to send the 5-year-old back to Churchill Downs for another Clark try. The son of Hard Spun, a winner of seven races and $668,033 in 17 races for owned by Robert V. LaPenta, 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 renewal.
“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.”
Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Joel Rosario, who only trails Castellano in North American earnings with more than $20.4 million, has the return call and will break from stall five under 117 pounds.
Protonico, another Pletcher-trained 3-year-old, joined barnmate Constitution and Easter Gift on the flight from New York. Owned by Sumaya U.S. Stables, the son of Giant’s Causeway collected his second Grade III win of the year with a 2 ¾-length come-from-behind win over a sloppy Aqueduct main track on Nov. 1 in the $200,000 Discovery Handicap (GIII). Joe Bravo takes the return call and will tack 117 pounds from post six
The Clark field is rounded out by Knights Nation and Looking Cool.
Brad Ray’s 4-year-old gelding Knights Nation, trained by Dallas Stewart, will make his graded stakes debut after a 4 ½-length win in 1 1/16-mile allowance/optional claiming event at Churchill Downs in 1:43.96 on Nov. 2. He’s perfect in two starts over the Churchill Downs oval and the only starter in the field with multiple victories beneath the Twin Spires. His rider Julien Leparoux won the 2008 Clark aboard Brazilian-bred Einstein.
Looking Cool, last year’s Iowa Derby (GIII) winner, was claimed by owner Fedai Kahraman and trainer Murat Sancal for $40,000 claim off owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey and trainer Mike Maker on Oct. 23 at Keeneland in an odds-on triumph at 1 1/16 miles.
The stakes record for the Clark Handicap is 1:47.39, which was established by Premium Tap while carrying 115 pounds in 2006.
Friday’s National Weather Service forecast for Louisville calls for sunny skies with a high near 39.
Like the Kentucky Derby and the Longines Kentucky Oaks (GI), the Clark has been run each year without interruption since it was introduced in the first race meeting at Churchill Downs, then known as the Louisville Jockey Club, in 1875.