Hoppertunity Heads Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs

The Clark Handicap (GI) at Churchill Downs has been consistently won by top racehorses, many of whom  moved on to be champions or important stallions.

Last year, Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Gun Runner, who capped off a tremendous 2017 with a dominant victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) and is likely the top candidate for Horse of the Year, earned his initial Grade 1 victory in the Clark and, this year, nine older horses will be looking to repeat his feat and rise to the top of the handicap division heading into the new year of racing.

Once again, the Clark will be contested at nine furlongs, which has been the set distance since 1955. Churchill’s Black Friday feature is worth $500,000.

Friday’s weather in Louisville is supposed to be a touch warmer than Thanksgiving Day with highs in the upper 50s under mostly sunny skies.

Watson, Weitman and Pegram’s Hoppertunity, who leads the field to post, will make his fourth start in the Clark Handicap. He won the race in 2014, finished second in 2015 and fourth a year ago. The Bob Baffert-trained son of Any Given Saturday has, unfortunately, spent the brunt of his career in the shadow of names like American Pharoah and Arrogate. But now, at the end of his 6-year-old year, he has a shot to take center stage and shine. Always a fan favorite, Hopportunity has a nice, versatile running style he can use to sit closer to the front early or fall farther back, depending on how the pace sets up.

He regularly earns triple-digit BRISnet speed figures and has put up some incredible pace figures to go with class. He’s only been off the board once at this distance and has been a fairly regular shipper to Churchill Downs. Local top jock Florent Geroux, who also happens to be the regular pilot for Gun Runner, takes over from fellow Frenchman Flavien Prat and a clean break to get good position early seems all they need to claim the win.

Lauren and Ralph Evans’ New York-bred Diversify is coming off a three-race win streak that culminated with a decisive performance in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (GI). The Rick Violette-trained son of Bellamy Road has done most of his running against his fellow state-breds, but that’s not to say he hasn’t earned speed and pace figures worthy of open company.

He’s a confirmed frontrunner and his early speed is his biggest weapon. If he makes the front from his outside post it will be hard for anyone to run him down in the lane. Irad Ortiz Jr. ships in for the 4-year-old gelding’s first start outside of the Empire State.

With the exception of his last race, where he apparently didn’t care for the Keeneland slop, Honorable Duty has been a very consistent runner — both in terms of performance and posting strong speed and pace figures. The Brendan Walsh-trained winner of the D. Wayne Lukas Classic (GI) over this track back in September was second to Gun Runner here in the Stephen Foster (GI) in June and also owns a pair of graded stakes wins last winter at Fair Grounds.

He too has a versatile turn of foot and is dangerous if he runs his best race under Corey Lanerie. He has two wins at this distance and has only been worse than second once in six tries here at Churchill Downs.

Seeking the Soul takes a jump up in class after racing mostly in allowance company and softer stakes/graded stakes company. The Dallas Stewart-trained son of Perfect Soul, who has a win over this track, is coming off a nine-length allowance romp at Keeneland in October where he earned a career high 102 BRISnet Speed figure. He also has a win at this distance and three thirds from four starts.

Marathon Stakes (GII) winner Destin returns to Churchill for the first time since his sixth-place finish in the 2016 Kentucky Derby. The well-bred son of Giant’s Causeway and the Siberian Summer mare Dream of Summer has had a lot of layoffs and breaks under Todd Pletcher and has yet to post a significant speed figure that shows he’s capable of beating the top choices here, but he’s surely fit enough coming off a 1 ¾-mile race, even though he clearly prefers more distance than the nine furlongs he’ll get here.

Former turf star Good Samaritan had a good career going before making the move to the main track, where he ran the best race of his career to win the Jim Dandy Stakes (GII) against fellow sophomores before faltering in the Travers Stakes (GI) and when facing older horses, such as Gun Runner, in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (GI).

Now, following a nice freshening, the Bill Mott-trained son of Harlan’s Holiday has been working well at his winter base of Payson Park for a few weeks and has found a good spot to either elevate himself to legitimate contender in the tough handicap division or return to the turf ranks.

The Player won the Fayette Stakes (GII) at this distance over a sloppy Keeneland track late last month and this is a logical next step for the nearly 5-year-old son of Street Hero. The Buff Bradley trainee likes Churchill (5-2-1-1) and is undefeated at this distance, but gets the acid test here under Hall of Fame jockey Calvin Borel. He will certainly be part of the early pace scenario.

Mo Tom had a bright future cruising down the 2016 Triple Crown Trail, but, overall, has yet to live up to any of those expectations. He’s picked up a decent placing or two since winning last year’s Ohio Derby (GIII), but just doesn’t seem to own the talent of the top runners here.

Goats Town is a nice, productive allowance horse who looks clearly overmatched here.

The Clark has been carded as the day’s 11th with a post time of 5:56 p.m. ET.

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