Defending winner Effinex will bid to become a rare two-time winner of Churchill Downs Racetrack’s $500,000 Grade I Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare when he faces a strong group of nine rivals that includes a trio of Grade I winners in Hoppertunity, Noble Bird and Shaman Ghost and top 3-year-old Gun Runner in the 142nd running of the track’s traditional feature on Black Friday, Nov. 25.
Seven of the 10 Clark Handicap entrants have surpassed the $1 million mark in career earnings. The members of the field have combined for 62 career victories and total earnings of $16,378,160.
Those who choose to attend Churchill Downs’ Black Friday program rather than fight through clogged shopping malls and other retailers will enjoy a powerful 12-race program that also includes the 26th running of the $200,000 Mrs. Revere (GII), the year’s penultimate graded stakes event for 3-year-old fillies on turf, and the 12th running of the $80,000 Dream Supreme Overnight Stakes, a six-furlong test for fillies and mares 3-year-olds and up.
The Clark Handicap, a 1 1/8-mile test for 3-year-olds and up named for the family of Churchill Downs founder Meriwether Lewis Clark, was introduced in the track’s inaugural racing meet in 1875. Like the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI) and the Longines Kentucky Oaks (GI), it has been run annually and without interruption since its debut.
Post time for the first race on Friday’s holiday weekend program is 1 p.m. (all times EST). The Clark Handicap is scheduled as the 11th race with a post time of 5:56 p.m.
Tri-Bone Stables’ Effinex rolled to a three-quarter length victory over 2016 Clark rival Hoppertunity in last year’s Clark and the Jimmy Jerkens-trained son of Mineshaft will attempt to be the first horse to win back-to-back renewals of the Clark since Bob’s Dusty took the fall fixture’s 1978-79 renewals. The only other back-to-back winners in the Clark’s long history were Bold Favorite (1968-69) and Hodge (1915-16). Those horses are also the only two-time winners of the race.
Effinex is one of two Clark contenders trained by the New York-based Jerkens, who also saddles Stronach Stables’ Shaman Ghost. The 2015 Clark winner will seek to atone for a disappointing run in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) at Santa Anita, where he finished a distant seventh to the victorious Arrogate and runner-up California Chrome, the 2014 Kentucky Derby winner. Prior to that outing Effinex finished a close second to Hoppertunity in Belmont Park’s Jockey Club Gold Cup (GI) and collected 2016 wins in the Oaklawn Handicap (GII) and Belmont’s Suburban (GII). His only poor run outside of the Breeders’ Cup Classic was a sixth-place finish behind Bradester as the odds-on favorite in a return to Churchill Downs for the $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (GI).
With his two wins in seven races this year, Effinex will bring a career record of 9-3-4 in 27 races and earnings of $3,307,950 into the Clark. Jockey Junior Alvarado will be in the irons aboard Effinex, who was assigned 123 pounds and will break from post three in his bid for a Clark repeat. He is listed as the 4-1 co-third choice in Churchill Downs odds maker Mike Battaglia’s morning line odds for the race.
Mike Pegram, Karl Watson and Paul Weitman’s Hoppertunity, the 3-1 morning line favorite for the 2016 Clark, followed his runner-up finish in last year’s Clark with a strong campaign highlighted by victories in the Belmont Park’s Jockey Club Gold Cup (GI), in which he defeated Effinex by a half-length, and the San Antonio (GII) at Santa Anita. The Bob Baffert trainee was a respectable fourth to stablemate Arrogate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and traveled to Dubai’s Meydan Race Course for a third-place run behind 2014 Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome in the $10 million Dubai World Cup. He met California Chrome four times this year, finishing third to that rival in Santa Anita’s San Pasqual (GII) and fourth to the Kentucky Derby winner and Breeders’ Cup Distaff (GI) winner Beholder in Del Mar’s $1 million Pacific Classic (GI).
The 5-year-old son of Any Given Saturday has a career record of 6-6-4 in 23 races with earnings of $3,862,675. John Velazquez will ride Hoppertunity, who was assigned high weight of 124 pounds and drew post nine.
John C. Oxley’s Noble Bird, winner of the 2015 Stephen Foster Handicap (GI) at Churchill Downs, has enjoyed a successful, if somewhat erratic, career, but comes into the Clark off impressive back-to-back wins in the $175,000 Lukas Classic at the Louisville track, in which he defeated 2016 Foster winner Bradester and Clark rival Hawaakom, and a 5 ¼-length romp in Keeneland’s Fayette Stakes (GII). Trainer Mark Casse’s 5-year-old son of Birdstone became a millionaire in his Fayette win and brings total earnings of $1,064,945 and a record of 7-4-0 in 19 races into Friday’s Clark. Noble Bird’s 2016 campaign also includes an 11 ¼-length victory in the Pimlico Special (GIII).
Noble Bird will carry 121 pounds and break from post six under regular rider Julien Leparoux. He is the 7-2 second choice in the Clark’s morning line.
Shaman Ghost, winner of Canada’s Queen’s Plate in 2015, provides Jerkens with a strong 1-2 punch in the Clark. The Ontario-bred son of Ghostzapper was entered in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but was scratched from that race when he came down with a fever. The 4-year-old Shaman Ghost will make only his fifth start on the year following a break of nearly 11 months between his 2015-16 campaigns.
His four races this year include a victory in the Woodward (GI) at Saratoga in his most recent start and a 4 ½ length triumph in Belmont Park’s Brooklyn (GII). Between those successes was a disappointing fifth-place finish behind Effinex in the Suburban.
Shaman Ghost, who will carry 122 pounds in the Clark, has fashioned a career slate of 6-1-1 in 12 races with earnings of $1,291,811. Jockey Javier Castellano will ride Shaman Ghost, 8-1 in the morning line odds, from post four.
Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC, Three Chimneys Farm LLC and Besilu Stables’ Gun Runner is the only 3-year-old in the strong field of older rivals in the Clark, but the son of Candy Ride (ARG) has four strong races at Churchill Downs that include a third-place finish to Nyquist in this year’s 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby. Gun Runner won his career debut over the Louisville track at age 2 and finished fourth to Airoforce over a sloppy track in the $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (GII). His most recent victory was 5 ¼-length score in the Matt Winn Stakes (GIII) on June 18 at Churchill Downs.
The Steve Asmussen trainee finished second to Tamarkuz in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (GI) at Santa Anita in his most recent start and will attempt to snap a four-race losing streak in the Clark. That string includes a third-place finish to Arrogate in Saratoga’s Travers (GI) and a runner-up finish to Connect in the Pennsylvania Derby (GII) at Parx. His 3-year-old season also includes wins in the Louisiana Derby (GII) and Risen Star (GII), both at Fair Grounds.
Regular rider Florent Geroux will be in the saddle aboard Gun Runner, who has a career record of 5-2-2 in 11 races with earnings of $1,743,300. Gun Runner, the 4-1 co-third choice in the morning line, drew the rail post and will carry 118 pounds.
Canada will supply a pair of Clark contenders in Breaking Lucky, who defeated Shaman Ghost in the 2015 Breeders’ Stakes at Fort Erie for trainer Reade Baker, and the Roger Attfield-trained Are You Kidding Me, winner of the Autumn (GII) at Woodbine last time out. Breaking Lucky defeated Are You Kidding Me in Woodbine’s Seagram Cup (GIII), while the latter downed the former in the Eclipse (GII) over the same synthetic Polytrack course. Breaking Lucky’s best effort came the Woodward, where he finished fourth, but lost by only a neck by Shaman Ghost. He was the beaten favorite in the Lukas Classic won by Noble Bird.
The field for the 142nd Clark Handicap, from the rail out with jockey (assigned weight and morning line odds): Gun Runner, Geroux (118, 4-1); Effinex, Alvarado (123, 4-1); Are You Kidding Me, Alan Garcia (119, 15-1); Shaman Ghost, Castellano (122, 8-1); Hawaakom, Miguel Mena (116, 20-1); Noble Bird, Leparoux (121, 7-2); Breaking Lucky, Luis Contreras (118, 8-1); Mr. Z, Ricardo Santana Jr. (114, 30-1); Hoppertunity, Velazquez (124, 3-1) and Prayer for Relief, Robby Albarado (115, 30-1).