It could be said that timing was everything Saturday night for Churchill Downs’ final Grade 1 race of the year.
Coming off a nearly five-month break, Proxy came out of post 1 and looked like he could answer any challenge.
“This was the plan,” trainer Michael Stidham said after Proxy (5-2) emerged from his front-end duel around the track with West Will Power (8-5) to win by three-quarters of a length in the $750,000 Clark Stakes. “Freshen him, get him ready for this race, and then move forward from this race.”
PROXY ($7.08) and jockey @JRosarioJockey stalk the pace and put pressure on West Will Power to wear him down in the stretch to take the $750K Clark (GI).November 25, 2022
Where a long rest proved perfect for Proxy, a 20-day turnaround for Rich Strike (2-1) from a fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic was not. He had nothing left turning into the homestretch of Saturday’s 1 1/8-mile race and finished last in the field of six.
“Came back too quick, obviously,” said trainer Eric Reed, who was as subdued after this race as he was giddy following Rich Strike’s 80-1 victory on the same track nearly seven months ago in the Kentucky Derby. “It was a big risk, and we didn’t know until we did it.”
A couple hours later owner Rick Dawson sent a text message saying a veterinarian “scoped Richie after the race, and he’s sick (with a) sinus infection ... in his nasal passage and lungs. Antibiotics starting tomorrow, and he’ll be fine in few days.”
While the loss scuttled any hopes of Rich Strike taking aim on the 3-year-old male championship, the win reinvigorated future hopes for Proxy, a 4-year-old colt by Tapit. Never mind that he had not won a Grade 1 race before.
“He had never won a stakes,” Stidham said. “With so many of the good horses retiring, hopefully he’s next year’s star.”
It was almost like the clear, 53-degree Saturday night was his start of 2023. After seven previous losses in stakes, and after establishing a mid-pack style in his last nine starts, Proxy surprisingly was in a pace duel early with West Will Power.
“He broke really well,” winning jockey Joel Rosario said. “He put me right there, and I was happy with that. He just stayed where he was. Every time I asked him to go forward, he was there for me.”
West Will Power, a late-blooming 5-year-old, took Proxy around the track in his typical, front-running style, establishing pedestrian fractions of 23.94, 48.51, 1:12.76 and 1:36.80. They were not as soft as last month, when West Will Power won the Fayette (G2) at Keeneland, but they certainly were not blazing, either.
“I felt pretty good and confident at that point,” Rosario said. “When we were turning for home, I thought I got (West Will Power) a little more easily. But that horse kept on moving forward.”
The two of them were relentless. West Will Power even rebroke at about the sixteenth pole as he tried to win for the third time in a row. Instead, Proxy prevailed with a winning time of 1:48.89 on the fast main track, giving Godolphin its second consecutive Clark win after Maxfield’s victory last year. The winner returned $7.08 on a $2 win bet.
“West Will Power was fighting hard on the lead and just got beat at the wire,” said trainer Brad Cox, whose other starter Fulsome (7-1) finished another 2 1/2 lengths back in third. “There wasn’t a whole lot of pace, but I thought Fulsome was able to run well given how the pace turned out.”
Last Samurai (20-1) finished fourth, Injunction (7-1) was fifth, and Rich Strike finished last for the first time since his debut 12 races and 15 months ago at Ellis Park.
“He broke a little slow,” Rich Strike’s jockey Sonny León said. “After a half a mile, I had to use him, because they were leaving him. He likes when we have pace in the race, and today really wasn’t a good pace for him.”
“He ran awfully flat, I’ll just put it that way,” Dawson said of Rich Strike, who was wheeled back faster than he had been for any of his previous races. “I had no reason to think he wasn’t ready coming into the race, but the outcome didn’t look very good.”
Rich Strike might have a chance to get even with Proxy in the Dubai World Cup (G1), a race that connections for both horses have targeted. Before that, though, Proxy may have a date in another Grade 1 race, this one worth $3 million in January at Gulfstream Park.
“The Pegasus is a possibility,” Stidham said. “The Dubai World Cup is certainly a possibility, and from there we’ll see.”
That may sound ambitious for a first-time Grade 1 winner. But Stidham was quick to point out in the build-up to this race that Proxy had been put to the test by some worthy opponents on his way to going 7: 0-4-2 in his previous stakes starts, including losses to Olympiad in a pair of Grade 2 races.
“Believe me, that had a lot to do with what happened today,” Stidham said. “As a 3-year-old he was running against Mandaloun and Hot Rod Charlie and running well with those horses. And beating them. And they beat him. That all led up to tonight.”
As expected, allowance winner Trademark was scratched Saturday morning. Trainer Vicki Oliver also entered the 3-year-old Upstart gelding in Sunday’s Commonwealth Turf (G3) hoping that race is moved to the main track. Her wish may be nature’s command. The National Weather Service said rain was certain to fall on Churchill Downs on Sunday morning.