A year after experiencing the heartbreak inflicted by the disqualification of Successful Dan from an apparent victory in the $500,000-added Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (Grade I), owner Morton Fink and trainer Charles Lopresti are back to take another shot at winning the premier race of Churchill Downs’ Fall Meet with another talented “Dan.”
Wise Dan is this year’s Clark hope for the Fink-Lopresti team and the 3-year-old son of Wiseman’s Ferry is a major player in a strong and competitive 13-horse field for the 1 1/8-mile race for older horses. Like the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI) and the Kentucky Oaks, the Clark has been run annually without interruption since the 1875 debut racing meet of the track then known as the Louisville Jockey Club.
“I don’t think we could have him any better than he is right now,” Lopresti said Thursday morning by telephone from his training base at Keeneland. “We had him out grazing this morning and he was such a handful we had to put him in. He’s really good.”
Wise Dan will break from post 11 as the 4-1 third choice in the Clark behind Jockey Club Gold Cup (GI) winner Flat Out and Belmont Stakes (GI) winner Ruler On Ice, who ran fifth and third, respectively, behind WinStar Farm’s Drosselmeyer in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5. While that high-powered duo will attempt to keep their names in the discussion for Eclipse Awards in their respective division, Lopresti is anxious to see how Wise Dan will handle his newest challenge.
The Clark will be the 4-year-old gelding’s first attempt to win a major stakes race over traditional dirt at a two-turn distance. He ran a respectable sixth over the Louisville track in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint (GI), where he finished just 2 ½ lengths behind the victorious Big Drama. He has two wins in four dirt starts at Churchill Downs, both victories coming last year in allowance races on sloppy tracks at six furlongs and a mile.
Wise Dan comes into this year’s Clark in exactly the same manner as the last two first-place finishers in the Clark. He romped to a four-length victory over Polytrack at the Clark distance of 1 1/8 miles in Keeneland’s Fayette (GII), just as Adele Dilschneider and Claiborne Farm’s future Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Blame did in 2009 and Successful Dan accomplished a year ago.
Prior to the Fayette, Wise Dan enjoyed significant success at shorter distances, including 2011 wins in the one-mile Firecracker Handicap (GII) in his turf debut at Churchill Downs and an impressive win from an outside post in the $250,000 Presque Isle Downs Mile over the Pennsylvania track’s synthetic Tapeta surface.
Wise Dan tuned-up for his Clark bid with a sharp six-furlong work in 1:!2 on Nov. 15 at Keeneland. That move encouraged Lopresti, but he believes Wise Dan has questions to answer in Friday’s race.
"I feel pretty confident, but I still have a question about the mile and an eighth on the dirt,” Lopresti said. “That’s my big concern. He got it on the ‘Poly’ and it looked like he was running away from them at the end, but this is a lot tougher field, too. I’m realistic about it – the Fayette was a lot lighter bunch than he’s running against here.”
Lopresti points to the presence of Breeders Cup Classic contenders Flat Out and Ruler On Ice as primary Clark contenders, and said the efforts of both in the 1 ¼-mile Classic merit respect.
“Flat Out only got beat three lengths in the Breeders’ Cup and Ruler On Ice got beat two lengths,” Lopresti said. “If those horses had finished up the racetrack, I wouldn’t have as much respect for them. But they didn’t run bad races.”
Wise Dan’s resume of three wins in seven 2011 races, which also includes a close third fourth-place run on the Keeneland turf behind three-time Eclipse Award champion Gio Ponti in the Grade I Shadwell Mile, provides ample fuel for Lopresti’s optimism. But that impressive six-furlong work at Keeneland strengthened Lopresti’s confidence that Wise Dan will run well in Friday’s race, and possibly ease the painful memory of the stewards’ decision that deprived Successful Dan of a victory in last year’s Clark.
“He worked three-quarters in (a minute) twelve and he was in the middle of the racetrack when he did it,” Lopresti said. “If we had put him down on the fence, there’s no telling what he would have done. We were talking him out of it.”
Lopresti’s star will have a new rider for the Clark as John Velazquez will travel from New York to substitute for Julien Leparoux. The leading rider of the Churchill Downs Fall Meet will be in California on Friday to pilot Vinery First Lady (GI) winner Never Retreat in the Grade I Matriarch at Hollywood Park.
“He’s a good strong rider,” Lopresti said of Velazquez. “I know he’s talked to Julien about him (Wise Dan). I know when I called him, it didn’t take two minutes to tell me he would come to ride him. It’s a compliment when a guy like Velazquez comes in to ride him. I know he’s watched his races and he knows him.”
Wise Dan brings career record of 7-0-0 in 13 races and earnings of $593,047 into Friday’s 137th Clark.
DICKEY PLEASED WITH POST DRAW FOR CLARK FAVORITE FLAT OUT – Trainer Scooter Dickey entered Tuesday’s post position draw for the Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (Grade I) with hopes that Preston Stables LLC’s favored Flat Out would not draw the rail. His wish was granted when the Jockey Club Gold Cup (GI) winner drew post six in the field of 13 for Friday’s race at Churchill Downs.
“I like the post and it should be good for him,” Dickey said. “He’s gotten beat three times this year when leaving from the one-hole. The post might not have had anything to do with him losing, but maybe it did. I’d rather not take the chance.”
In his most recent start, the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI), Flat Out drew post two, but still broke further inside than all other horses after Prayer for Relief, who had drawn post one, scratched out of the race. Post position one was left open in the Classic, where Flat Out finished fifth behind Drosselmeyer.
Now that Dickey is happy with his post position, he is hoping to get the type of track that best suits the 5-year-old son of Flatter: fast and dry.
“I want the sun to come out and dry this track out some more,” Dickey said. “The track had a little water in it for the Breeders’ Cup and the Stephen Foster (GI) and he doesn’t seem to like it when there’s only a little water. He’d rather run over a muddy track than a “good” track or a fast track with some water. I don’t really know why that is, though.”
Flat Out, whose two off-the-board finishes this year have come on the main track beneath the Twin Spires, has been installed as the 5-2 morning-line favorite by Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia. Flat Out was also the post-time favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“Being the favorite makes you worry more because you don’t want to let people down,” Dickey said. “But the horse is doing really well. He went out early (Thursday) morning and galloped down the stretch. We’re ready for tomorrow.”
Flat Out will be guided in the Clark by Alex Solis, who has been aboard him for his last five starts. Solis is scheduled to arrive in Louisville on Thursday night.
OXLEY, CASSE TAKE TWO SHOTS AT SATURDAY’S $150,000 GOLDEN ROD – Owner John Oxley and trainer Mark Casse will take two shots in Saturday’s $150,000-added Golden Rod (GII) with 2-year-old fillies Golden History and Spirited Miss, and hope that one of those rising stars will land them in the winner’s circle following the 68th running the 1 1/16-mile race for juvenile fillies on the main track.
The Golden Rod will be the co-feature with the $150,000-added Kentucky Jockey Club (GII) on Churchill Downs’ Stars of Tomorrow II program devoted exclusively to races for 2-year-olds. The Golden Rod will be run as race nine with a scheduled post time of 4:42 p.m. (all times EST).
"It looks like a real competitive field and there doesn’t appear to be a standout, with maybe the exception of the horse that won the Pocahontas (On Fire Baby),” assistant trainer Norman Casse said. “I like both of our horses’ chances.”
Golden History, a $450,000 purchase earlier this year at Florida’s Ocala Breeders’ Sales Selected 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale, has been pointed to the Golden Rod since she won her career debut by 2 ¾ lengths on the synthetic Polytrack surface at Toronto’s Woodbine. The daughter of Medaglia d’Oro arrived at Churchill Downs in mid-October and made her second career start over the main track in a fifth-place run in the one-mile Pocahontas (GII), where she finished three lengths behind On Fire Baby.
“We were hoping to run her in an allowance race here but the race didn’t go, so our hands were tied and we had to go in the Pocahontas,” Casse said. “The Golden Rod has been the target all along.”
Golden History will break from post nine under Shaun Bridgmohan in the Golden Rod.
Unlike her stablemate, Spirited Miss did not have a Golden Rod bid on her long-range radar. The Oxley homebred broke her maiden on the Woodbine turf in August, and then finished fourth on turf to Northern Passion in the Natalma (GIII). She moved to the Polytrack course at the Toronto track for a runner-up finish to Blue Heart in the Mazarine before the daughter of Sky Mesa was pre-entered in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (GII). Mark Casse ultimately decided against entering the filly in that race.
The Golden Rod will be the first race on traditional dirt for Spirited Miss, who will break from post three under Javier Castellano.
“She’s always been one of the horses that we’ve really liked,” Casse said. “The Juvenile (Fillies) Turf just came up too tough and we didn’t want to put her in there. She’s been at Churchill Downs for several weeks and has had four good works over the (main) track. With the Golden Rod coming up the way it has and her working so well over the dirt, we decided to give it a shot.”
The Casse barn experienced success this year with a horse trying dirt for the first time when 36-1 shot Pool Play won Churchill Downs’ $500,000-added Stephen Foster Handicap Presented by Abu Dhabi (GI) in June after running on synthetic and turf courses in 27 previous starts.
WHO’S HOT – The hottest jockeys over the last five racing days (Nov. 17-23) are Corey Lanerie (7-for-40), Julien Leparoux (6-for-24) and Jesus Castanon (6-for-25). Wayne Catalano (3-for-5) and Mike Maker (3-for-12) are the hottest trainers over the same period. Ken and Sarah Ramsey (2-for-11) are the hottest owners.
BARN TALK – A local memorial service for the late trainer Robert Holthus is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 26 at 10:30 a.m. (EST) at Christ Chapel on the Churchill Downs backside. Holthus saddled 211 winners beneath the Twin Spires, including 11 stakes wins. Holthus, who died in Louisville on Nov. 22 at the age of 78, started five horses in the Kentucky Derby.
Churchill Downs will host a “Stache Bash” on Saturday during the races to honor and celebrate all of the Mo Bros and Mo Sistas who participated in Movember. Churchill Downs will donate $1 per attendee who is sporting a mustache to the Movember Foundation with a minimum guaranteed pledge of $5,000 given through the Churchill Downs Foundation. The day’s festivities will include between-race live music by popular Cincinnati-based My Sister Sarah in the paddock area and Happy Hour drink specials from 3-5 p.m.