11/23/2011 2:43PM

Churchill Downs: Clark has championship implications

Tom Keyser
Flat Out, with Alex Solis riding, wins the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Not many American stakes have been run continuously since 1875. The Clark Handicap is one of those proud and few. A fall staple for generations, the Clark has ebbed and flowed in terms of importance and prestige, with recent renewals being among the stronger ones.

That tradition continues Friday with the 137th running of the Grade 1 Clark, which drew an outstanding field of 13. Flat Out, the beaten favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Classic here nearly three weeks ago, is likely to be favored again as the 123-pound highweight, but the 5-year-old horse will have to bring his ‘A’ game to prevail.

“It seems like all of them in there have run good races at one time or another,” said Scooter Dickey, who trains Flat Out for the Preston Stables. “We’ve got them all to contend with.”

With victories in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup and Grade 2 Suburban, and runner-up finishes in the Grade 1 Whitney and Woodward, Flat Out clearly could bolster his chances for becoming the 2011 champion older horse by winning Friday.

“I just want him to prove that he’s as good a horse as we think he is and to maintain his status,” said Dickey. “That’s the main thing, and to show that he can win over the surface here at Churchill. Whatever happens, he’s a champion to me. People can say and vote what they want about him, but he’s done more than we could ever imagine.”

Flat Out, with Alex Solis in to ride, will start from post 6 in the 1 1/8-mile Clark.

Another Eclipse Award division could incur major impact if Ruler On Ice were to post a mild upset. Trained by Kelly Breen for George and Lori Hall, Ruler On Ice has been very consistent this year in racking up a Belmont Stakes victory and a third-place finish in the Nov. 5 BC Classic as one of a handful of contenders in the contentious 3-year-old division. The gelding will have Garrett Gomez aboard when he breaks from post 1.

Likewise, Prayer for Relief is another 3-year-old concluding a terrific year, having reeled off consecutive wins in the Iowa Derby, West Virginia Derby, and Super Derby. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert had the colt flown in early Tuesday from Southern California and placed in the barn of his erstwhile arch rival, D. Wayne Lukas. Prayer for Relief was entered but scratched from the BC Classic after having a virus at the wrong time.

“It came and went real quick,” Baffert, a two-time Clark winner with Isitingood (1996) and Silver Charm (1998), said earlier this week while visiting in-laws in Tennessee. “He’s trained really well the last couple of weeks. It’ll be interesting to see how he stacks up against these horses. I’d like to run him in the Dubai World Cup next year, because I honestly think he’s best on the synthetic and he’ll go a mile and a quarter with no problem. But let’s see how he does in this race. I think it’s a good spot for him.”

Rafael Bejarano will guide Prayer for Relief away from post 12.

There are no speed-burners in the Clark, and in fact a potentially slow tempo might end up having an effect. On paper, the pace figures to be set by horses drawn toward the outside: Will’s Wildcat (post 10) exits a sprint victory in one of the BC undercard stakes and figures prominently early with Calvin Borel up, while the three horses to his outside – Wise Dan, Prayer for Relief, and General Quarters – also seem likely to hustle into contention by the time they straighten down the backstretch. Alma d’Oro, Mission Impazible, and Pleasant Prince all have contending speed, too.

As the race unfolds, Flat Out and Ruler On Ice can be expected to bid into the fray, and then the final quarter-mile is where the half-million questions will be answered.

First post for a 12-race Friday program is 12:40 p.m. Eastern, with the later races, including the Clark (race 11, post 5:42), to be run under the lights. Three allowances (races 8, 9, 10) directly precede the Clark.

Following days of rain earlier this week, the weather was forecast to be clear and sunny Friday, with high temperatures in the mid-60’s.

The 21-day Churchill fall meet ends with a Stars of Tomorrow card on Saturday and the finale on Sunday.

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