11/25/2005 12:00AM

Magna Graduate takes Clark

Four-Footed Fotos
Magna Graduate (right) and Suave match stride for stride in the Churchill Downs homestretch on Friday. Magna Graduate, John Velazquez aboard, put his head in front at the wire to win the Clark Handicap.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Magna Graduate gamely held off Suave in an electrifying stretch-long duel Friday in the 131st running of the Grade 2 at Churchill Downs, capping a record-breaking day for trainer Todd Pletcher and becoming a horse to watch for the major handicaps next year.

Magna Graduate, always prominent under John Velazquez, took command from longshot Go Now early in the far turn, but it wasn't long before Suave, the 2-1 favorite in a field of 12, came to call. Approaching the quarter pole, and to the wire, the two were inseparable, with Magna Graduate prevailing by a head.

The victory came just a few hours after Pletcher, based primarily in New York, set a North American record for stable earnings in one year. With the $355,570 first prize from the $573,500 Clark, Pletcher's earnings total is quickly approaching $20 million, with still more than a month to spare in 2005.

Magna Graduate, a 3-year-old Honor Grades colt owned by Elisabeth Alexander, returned $10 as third choice after finishing 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.89 over a fast track. Perfect Drift, the 3-1 second choice, finished another four lengths back in third.

Magna Graduate, said Velazquez, "just kind of kept a head in front the whole time. He just kept giving me a little more. That extra little bit."

Rafael Bejarano was aboard 4-year-old Suave for trainer Paul McGee, who was seeking a second Clark win since a 1988 victory by Balthazar B. helped launch his training career.

"Brutal beat," said McGee.

Before an ontrack crowd of 13,881, the largest of the 21-day fall meet, Go Now set the early pace with Magna Graduate pressed to his flank. Turning for home, as Magna Graduate and Suave took over, several horses made mild runs, but none was able to join the ferocious duel that was unfolding.

Magna Graduate became the first 3-year-old to win the Clark since the filly Surfside won in 2000. He now has won 6 of 15 starts, and 3 of 5 since Pletcher assumed his training this summer. He was coming off back-to-back wins against fellow 3-year-olds in the Pegasus and Discovery handicaps.

Magna Graduate and Suave could meet next in the Feb. 4 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park.

After Perfect Drift, the order of finish was Andromeda's Hero, M B Sea, A.P. Arrow, Purim, Alumni Hall, Go Now, Total Impact, Chippewa Trail, and Stolen Time.

The $2 exacta paid $39, and the $2 trifecta paid $94.80.

One race earlier, Strength and Honor ($7.20) once again put his fondness for Churchill on full display when leading all the way to win the Distorted Humor, a $70,320 overnight handicap. Ridden by Garrett Gomez and trained by Chuck Simon, Strength and Honor now has won 6 times from 12 local starts.