Clark Handicap could signal leading 2018 horses

Clark Handicap could signal leading 2018 horses
Photo: NYRA

Churchill Downs’ Clark Handicap may not have the renown of other Grade 1 races run earlier in the season, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting of an event. Rather than propel top contenders on to the Breeders’ Cup, over the years the Clark -- won in 2016 by Gun Runner -- has been instrumental in predicting the next season’s leading older males.
We could see the tradition continue from Friday’s contentious field of nine.

The Fall Meet feature presents an interesting mix of 3-year-olds looking to get a head start on 2018, tried and true veterans, and upstarts looking to solidify their status before the year’s end. The question is, who will prove the best?

The Player and Diversify are the two most recognized upstarts looking to solidify their reputations. The Player is coming off an impressive triumph in Keeneland’s Grade 2 Fayette Stakes, as he laid waste to solid competitors in Neolithic, McCraken, and Honorable Duty. 
Coming into the race, trainer Buff Bradley told The Blood-Horse that the son of Street Hero couldn’t be doing any better. 
“I feel really good about going into this race where we are with him and thinking that he's getting to that level where he is at the top of his game,” Bradley said.
Diversify, like The Player, comes into the Clark off an impressive win, and is looking to prove his front-running score in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup wasn’t a fluke. In that race, Diversify didn’t just defeat solid competition, but held off some of the top older males in the East. The Clark will mark his first race outside of New York. 
Good Samaritan is the lone 3-year-old in the Clark, and he’s looking to bounce back after two straight losses. The Bill Mott trainee showed a flash of promise when winning his dirt debut in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes but has only managed a fifth- and fourth-place finish, beaten by total 16 1/2 lengths, in his subsequent dirt tries. 
The good news is that the colt had a solid record running over the lawn and, lucky for him, Churchill Downs’ main course is known to be kind to turf runners. 
The old veteran, of course, is the Bob Baffert-trained Hoppertunity. The 6-year-old has seen and done more than most stable stars would, even if you doubled their career starts, yet he still keeps on chugging. With a 2014 Clark victory, he’ll be looking to become only the fourth two-time winner of the race. After a seven-month respite and a second-place finish in the Comma to the Top Stakes, Baffert says son of Any Given Saturday is “back and doing well.”
Well enough to win? That, in the Grade 1 Clark, is the $500,000 question. Who among this diverse bunch is ready to take a step forward this late in the year — and indicate he could be among the nation’s leaders in 2018?

Meet Laura Pugh

Laura Pugh got her first taste of Thoroughbred racing when she watched War Emblem take the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 2002. At that point, she fell in love with the sport, reading every piece of news and information she could get her fingertips on.

Laura has a long history with horses in general, taking her first ride on her fifth birthday, with her first official riding lesson when she was eight years old. Both years she attended college, she joined her school s equestrian team, first at Virginia Intermont College and then again at Delaware State University. Unfortunately, after back and shoulder injuries, she had to hang up her saddle. 

In 2010, Laura began writing for Horse Racing Nation and has also contributed to Lady and the Track, TwinSpires and USRacing. She currently works at a local newspaper as a community reporter.

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