Stakes Preview: In the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs, can we get 4/1 on Hoppertunity?

DontLetTheGamePassYouByfortfus

>>Go to the PPs for the G1 Clark Handicap |Post Time 5:35 EST Friday

First run in 1875—the same year as the inaugural Kentucky Derby—the Clark Handicap will be held for the 141st time on Friday. Now a Grade 1 event, in recent years it has served as a late-season goal for horses exiting the Breeders’ Cup, representing one of the last opportunities for older horses and three-year-olds to bolster their resumes ahead of the Eclipse Awards.

This year’s race has drawn two also-rans out of the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the top two finishers out of the Fayette Stakes, as well as the hard-knocking mare Frivolous. The Pace Projector is predicting a situation that favors the frontrunners, but it is placing long shots Mr. Z and Shotgun Kowboy on or near the lead.

Let’s go through the field.

#1, Keen Ice (3-1): The Travers winner remains the only horse to have conquered American Pharoah during that one’s illustrious three-year-old campaign. Whereas Keen Ice was the beneficiary of aggressive tactics by rival Frosted in the Travers, which sapped just enough of American Pharoah’s energy, no such scenario played out in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. American Pharoah was allowed to dictate terms on the front end and he easily galloped away from the field in the stretch. Mike Smith on Effinex was the only rider who sensed what was going on and positioned his mount to capitalize on dynamics. Yet Keen Ice and so many of the others were allowed to drop far back off a moderate pace and never had a chance to make a late impact in a merry-go-round race. While the Pace Projector is predicting a situation that favors horses on or near the lead, the primary pace players are long shots. Keen Ice does not have to be ridden as a deep closer, and if Corey Lanerie is able to attain a mid-pack position with him, as Javier Castellano did in the Travers, he should be able to make a late impact. A repeat of this horse’s TimeformUS speed figure of 130 in the Travers would make him awfully difficult to beat in this spot. He’s a top contender.

#2, Looks to Spare (30-1): He experienced his moment of glory in the West Virginia Governors Stakes back in August, when he upset the field from off the pace at 74/1. He was no match for tougher fields in either the Jockey Club Gold Cup or Marathon Stakes on the Breeders’ Cup undercard. This one appears to be overmatched in Grade 1 company.

#3, Mr. Z (15-1): This three-year-old will be making his 12th start of the year before the calendar turns to December. In typical D. Wayne Lukas fashion, Mr. Z started racing in the summer of his two-year-old season and has not gotten a break since. While he has had a couple of moments in the spotlight this year, he has found the waters to be a little too deep in his Grade 1 tries. He is projected to be on the lead in a situation favoring the frontrunner, but was presented with similarly favorable pace scenarios in a few recent races and has yet to run fast enough to be considered a trifecta player in this spot. This one needs softer company to shine.

#4, Frivolous (15-1): It’s yet to be determined whether this 5-year-old daughter of Empire Maker will race here or in the Falls City, which is restricted to fillies and mares. We commend the job that trainer Victoria Oliver has done with Frivolous this season, getting her back to the best form of her career over the summer. Yet her top speed figures of 118 are not quite fast enough for her to be considered one of the primary contenders in this race, and the deep-closing running style that she has adopted recently may not fit the projected race shape. She does love Churchill Downs, but that may not be enough this time. Pass.

#5, Protonico (8-1): The runner-up in this race last year appeared to be on his way to bigger and better things after impressively taking the Ben Ali at Keeneland back in April. He then went on to nose out subsequent Grade 1 Stephen Foster winner Noble Bird over this surface in the Alysheba on Kentucky Derby week. However, he was not seen for over four months after that and his two races since the layoff have been uninspiring. Perhaps his affinity for this track will wake him up, but we find it hard to trust him in his current form.

#6, Hoppertunity (7/2):

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The defending Clark Handicap champion faces a much tougher field in this year’s race. Last year’s Clark received a race rating of just 121, whereas this year’s race was assigned a preliminary rating of 127, indicative of the Grade 1 quality of the field. After winning the San Pasqual back in January, Hoppertunity has lost seven straight races. However, that’s not to say that he’s necessarily been off form. His speed figures during that time, averaging around 120, give him a chance, and his most recent effort suggests he may be rounding into the best form of his career. He comes out of the Fayette Stakes, run on the Breeders’ Cup Friday undercard. Though he lost to today’s rival Race Day, that one received a perfect rail-skimming trip while Hoppertunity raced wide around both turns and was spun out into the five-path as the field turned into the stretch. He would have had every right to tire late after such a trip, but kept on and was actually closing the gap on Race Day late. The speed figure of 126 that he earned for that effort puts him in contention for the top prize, and we think it’s possible that he may have even more to offer this time.

#7, Shotgun Kowboy (20-1): The Pace Projector is indicating that dynamics may work in his favor, but this field is far tougher than anything he’s faced recently. He’s never raced outside of his home base of Remington Park and may be in for a shock as he steps up against some of the best horses in the country.

#8, Effinex (5/2): The shock of the Breeders’ Cup Classic was the runner-up effort by this New York-bred at 33/1. However, die-hard followers of New York racing could hardly have been surprised, since this colt has always hinted at being capable of that kind of performance, and his trainer, Jimmy Jerkins, is one of the best in the business. The Hall of Fame-caliber ride that he received from Mike Smith also helped, since Effinex, typically a late-runner, was placed in a forward position just off the flank of American Pharoah in the early stages as the others all took back far off the moderate pace. When the real running began on the far turn, Effinex got the jump on the closers and was able to secure the runner-up spot. That’s not to diminish Effinex’s performance, since there is no doubt that he ran the race of his life. The 130 speed figure that he was assigned matches Keen Ice’s Travers-winning number. He’s not the most consistent horse, which makes us wary of taking him at a very short price, but he nevertheless merits strong consideration.

#9, Race Day (7/2): As previously mentioned, while he bested Hoppertunity in the Fayette, we felt that the runner-up ran the better race that day. Yet Race Day still performed well in victory and finally got back to the form that he had displayed at Oaklawn back in the early spring. He’s run the two best races of his life at a mile and an eighth and figures to be up close to a moderate pace. He’s definitely among the four main contenders, and whether we would ultimately play him depends on price. He’s a bad bet as the favorite but would be interesting at around 9/2 or higher.

THE PLAY

The four main contenders are Keen Ice (#1), Hoppertunity (#6), Effinex (#8), and Race Day (#9). Since these runners are fairly evenly matched in terms of speed figures and all appear to be in good form, you should let price be your guide and look for the best value at post time.

If we’re going to make conjectures about how this race will be bet, we’d guess that Effinex and Race Day will take the most play since they’re coming off the two flashiest performances.

For that reason, we slightly prefer Keen Ice (#1) and Hoppertunity (#6). We could bet Keen Ice to win at odds of 7/2 or higher, but we’re not sure that we’ll get that. Therefore, we’re making defending champion HOPPERTUNITY (#6) our top selection. He’d offer value at anything over 4/1, and it seems likely that we’ll get such a price. We would bet him to win provided that the value is there and would also recommend keying on him in exactas and trifectas with the three other aforementioned contenders.

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