11/21/2012 2:28PM

Churchill Downs: Shackleford aims to go out strong in Clark Handicap

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Barbara D. Livingston
Shackleford will be making the final start of his career in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap on Friday at Churchill Downs.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The two-year saga that took Shackleford from unknown white-blazed chestnut into the racing stratosphere is nearly at an end. The colt won a seven-furlong maiden race at Churchill Downs at 25-1 on Nov. 27, 2010, and some $2.8 million later, he will make the final start of an illustrious career Friday as the highweight and likely favorite in the Churchill fall showcase, the Grade 1 Clark Handicap.

No one will blame trainer Dale Romans if he feels a bit nostalgic when he saddles Shackleford for the $400,000 Clark. Not only does an unmistakable full-circle aspect apply to Shackleford, but also to Romans, who was a mere kid hanging on the shirttail of his late father, trainer Jerry Romans, when he witnessed his first Clark sometime in the 1970s.

“It’s one of the great races at my home track and one I’ve always wanted to win,” Romans said. “I couldn’t think of a better way to send this horse off.”

Shackleford, with Jesus Castanon to ride, will spot his nine opponents 2 to 7 pounds when he breaks from post 3 in this 138th running of the Clark, which goes as the 11th of 12 Friday races. A winner of three major stakes, most notably the 2011 Preakness and 2012 Met Mile, Shackleford will be making his 19th start when he stretches out one furlong from a seventh-place effort following a poor start in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile nearly three weeks ago. Win, lose, or dead heat, he will head off to Darby Dan Farm shortly afterward for 2013 stud duty.

“Obviously, he lost pretty much all chance with that bad break,” said Romans, whose sensational 2012 has him under serious consideration for an Eclipse Award for top trainer. “But he’s come back in good shape and worked great [Saturday]. I think the extra distance will enhance his speed. I’d love for him to get out there and show them how he can fight one last time.”

The opposition for Shackleford seems deep and formidable – and typical as to why this year-end fixture was first listed as a Grade 1 in 2006 (although it was a Grade 2 from 2007-09 until reinstated as a Grade 1 in 2010).

That ensemble includes Pool Play (post 1, Corey Lanerie), winner of the 2011 Stephen Foster at Churchill and the 2012 Hawthorne Gold Cup; Bourbon Courage (post 4, Leandro Goncalves), a late-season stalwart of the 3-year-old division with four sharp recent works over the Churchill surface; Cease (post 5, Miguel Mena), in peak form for the red-hot Al Stall stable; Take Charge Indy (post 6, Calvin Borel), the Florida Derby winner who stands to benefit greatly from his recent comeback race in the Fayette Stakes; Mission Impazible (post 9, Javier Castellano), a Todd Pletcher-trained millionaire who has been second in a number of major races, including the 2011 Foster and Clark; and Lunar Victory (post 10, Junior Alvarado), a New York-bred standout with the Beyer Speed Figures to match the other top contenders.

Rounding out the Clark cast are longshots Eye of the Leopard, Fast Falcon, and Stealcase.

Three-year-olds stand to have a say in the outcome Friday as four of them will represent a class that has taken more than its share of hits this year with the defections of such stars as I’ll Have Another, Bodemeister, Union Rags, Paynter, Creative Cause, and Hansen. Yet another 3-year-old, Neck ’n Neck, was declared Tuesday from the Clark after suffering an ankle injury.

“Our horse is coming into this about as well as I could possibly imagine,” said Kellyn Gorder, trainer of Bourbon Courage, a five-length winner of the Super Derby and a game runner-up to Neck ’n Neck last month in the Indiana Derby. “If he runs his race, I’m thinking he should be right there with these.”

The last 3-year-old to win the Clark just happened to be one of the most notable winners in its long history. That was Blame in 2009, the year before he returned to capture the BC Classic here over Zenyatta.

The Clark, named for track founder M. Lewis Clark, was one of four stakes run at the inaugural Churchill meet in 1875, along with the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks, and Falls City.

First post is 12:40 p.m. Eastern for Friday, when some 20,000 are expected ontrack. Post time for the Clark is 5:35, meaning the race will be run under the lights. A high temperature of about 53 degrees is in the forecast.