11/28/2014 7:32PM

Hoppertunity leads 3-year-old sweep in Clark Handicap

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Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
Hoppertunity (center), ridden by Martin Garcia, wins the Grade 1 Clark Handicap by a half-length Friday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Any doubts about the dominance of the 3-year-old class of 2014 were left in the cold and dusty loam of Churchill Downs when Hoppertunity led a sweep of the top spots by 3-year-olds Friday in the 141st running of the Grade 1, $551,000 Clark Handicap, the annual fall-meet showcase.

Ridden by Martin Garcia, Hoppertunity held off the stretch run of Protonico to win the 1 1/8-mile race by a half-length, with Constitution another 1 1/4 lengths back in third. That trifecta represented the only 3-year-olds in the field of nine.

For Mike Pegram, who co-owns Hoppertunity with Karl Watson and Paul Weitman, the victory was especially rewarding because the colt had been scratched off the Kentucky Derby program as the second morning-line choice because of a foot bruise.

“This shows that if you take care of the horse, they’ll take care of you,” said Pegram.

Hoppertunity, a Kentucky-bred by Any Given Saturday, returned $6.40 as the favorite after finishing in 1:49.88 over fast going.

Making his second start for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert since being sidelined after the Derby, Hoppertunity was always in a great position. Constitution, the 5-2 second choice, led him through splits of 24.30 seconds, 49.04, and 1:13, but Garcia always felt his horse was willing when asked.

“He was short last time,” said Garcia. “We knew he was ready for this.”

Down the stretch, Hoppertunity was unrelenting. He overtook Constitution and had enough left to stave off Protonico, a 7-1 shot under Joe Bravo. The second- and third-place finishers are trained by Todd Pletcher.

After the top three, the order was Pick of the Litter, Easter Gift, Prayer for Relief, Departing, Looking Cool, and Knights Nation.

The Clark finish mimicked that of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, where 3-year-olds swept the top six placings, led by the Baffert-trained Bayern.

For Baffert, who deputized longtime assistant Jim Barnes for saddling duties while he stayed in California, it was his third Clark victory, following Isitingood in 1996 and Silver Charm in 1998. Pegram also was a part-owner in Isitingood.

Hoppertunity emerged as a major Derby contender by winning the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park in March and finishing second to California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby in April. But hopes were dashed when the colt incurred his foot bruise that simply required time for him to recover.

Hoppertunity was a fast-closing second in a seven-furlong allowance during Breeders’ Cup week at Santa Anita in his lone prep toward the Clark.

“Bobby used an abundance of precaution, and look what we got,” said Pegram. “This right here is sweet, and hopefully we’ll be rewarded by having a real nice 4-year-old on our hands.”

The Clark, as has been the custom since 2010, was run under the lights. Attendance on an unseasonably cold day surely was a meet-high, although figures are not released by Churchill Downs Inc.

The $2 exacta (1-6) paid $64, the $1 trifecta (1-6-7) returned $150.40, and the 10-cent superfecta (1-6-7-9) was worth $77.03.