The Clark Handicap on November 24 will offer up some big opportunities in several different ways. But those familiar with the event know that is nothing new.
Since 1875, the Clark has been run at Churchill Downs as the centerpiece of their fall meet. In recent years it has served as one of the most important grade 1 events on dirt after the Breeders’ Cup. The top horse in the country today, Gun Runner, used last year’s Clark as a springboard to the catbird seat in the final NTRA Thoroughbred poll of 2017. Highly decorated runners like Wise Dan (2011), Shackleford (2012), and Will Take Charge (2013) have won the mile and an eighth dance over the Churchill dirt in recent years. In each case it served as a fantastic finish to big years.
The 143rd running will feature a strong field with eyes on more than just the $500,000 purse. The Player is one of those runners that sees the Clark as a chance to make a break for the sport’s big time.
A four-year old son of Street Hero, this Buff Bradley trained four-year old looks primed to make a move towards prominence. Home bred by Bradley, The Player is fresh off an impressive score in the grade 2 Fayette at Keeneland on October 28. Before that, this grandson of Street Cry ran a strong second to Awesome Slew in the Ack-Ack Handicap at Churchill on September 30. With only eight career starts under his saddle, Bradley hopes to continue building his next horse of promise.
“We think the Player has a lot of upside,” says the Louisville based conditioner. “We have taken our time with him because he is a large horse that needed time to mature physically. We liked his run in the Ack-Ack and then he put it all together and got the distance in the Fayette. He is giving us a lot to be excited about when we think about the Clark and the future.”
Another thing that has Bradley excited about the future is the services of his rider. Calvin Borel brilliantly booted The Player home in the Fayette and will again be aboard in the Clark. With over 5,100 wins to his credit, the crafty Cajun is the jockey of choice for Bradley.
“I think Calvin fits this horse very well,” says Bradley. “He has an uncanny knack for knowing what it takes to get the best from his mounts and he seems to have that connection with the Player. We have been friends since 1990 and it’s really good to have him on a great horse.”
With the Player looking to launch himself into the bigger mix, Hoppertunity is a runner that hopes to continue his prominence in the older horse division. As one of the veterans in the Bob Baffert barn, the California based son of Any Given Saturday has stood hoof to hoof with the sports best and wants to prove he is still top shelf. With over $4.2 million in earnings, Hoppertunity has fought his way into the hearts of many during his 27 career starts,
“Hoppertunity is one of the senior players in the barn,” says Baffert of his six-year old star. “All of our horses are special but because he has been around so long he has a special place in our hearts. He has won some big races and created a lot of special memories for our barn. He’s like Rocky Balboa, he always shows up with a big effort.”
During a career that has featured starts in 23 graded stakes races, Hoppertunity has run strong with 7 career wins, 7 seconds and 4 thirds. Included in those wins are victories in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont and the Clark Handicap. The Clark win came in 2014 and he ran second in the race in 2015 and fourth last year. The experience in a lot of “big” races over the years has Baffert confident enough to bring his road warrior to Churchill again, but the hall of fame conditioner understands the challenge.
“The Clark is always a race that comes up tough and this year will be no different, “ says Baffert. “He has to bring his A game. His recent works have been good ( :59.6 five furlongs at Santa Anita Nov. 13) and he has had a prep race. He is doing well right bow we just need him to show up.”
Florent Geroux is slated to have the mount aboard Hoppertunity. The Clark is the headline event of a 12 race card on November 24 with first post at 1 pm.