11/21/2007 12:00AM

A tough puzzle for handicappers

Istan comes into the Clark off a sharp win three weeks ago in the Ack Ack.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A greater accumulation of star power might well have graced the Clark Handicap in previous years, but in terms of competitiveness, it would be difficult to surpass the 133rd running Friday at Churchill Downs. Virtually every one of the nine starters figures good enough, and a wide assortment of variables make the race a bettor's delight.

Diamond Stripes poses a big handicapping question as one of the more confounding starters in the Grade 2, $500,000 Clark. After compiling 5 wins and 3 thirds in the first 8 races of his career, he suddenly threw in a clunker in the Breeders' Cup Classic, finishing nearly 37 lengths behind Curlin on a sloppy Monmouth Park track.

"I was hoping he was going to like the track, but obviously he didn't," trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. said earlier this week from New York. "But he's trained good since, and I don't see a reason why he shouldn't run his race Friday."

Brass Hat is another tough one to figure. After setting a track record for 1 1/16 miles here in July, Brass Hat sandwiched three so-so efforts around a victory in the Massachusetts Handicap, and even his regular rider, Willie Martinez, conceded his prize mount can be a difficult read.

"He has gotten a lot wiser and he has learned how to take care of himself," said Martinez. "But when he shows up, he shows up big."

Except for perhaps California shipper Plug Me In, a strong case - with caveats, of course - can be made for the rest of the Clark field. Purim, a Grade 1 winner, certainly has the class, but how will his best grass form transfer to the main track? Going Ballistic can fly late, but as the lone 3-year-old in the field, how effective can he be against older horses?

And which, if any, of the Todd Pletcher trio of Magna Graduate, Fairbanks, and A.P. Arrow will step up with a Pletcheresque effort? All three have shown the ability to win at this level, but none has won a race since early April.

And then there's Istan, who, unlike several others coming off puzzling last starts, is entered off a powerful victory in the one-mile Ack Ack Handicap nearly three weeks ago.

"I just hope he doesn't bounce, and I'm confident he won't," said Brereton C. Jones, the former Kentucky governor who days after the Ack Ack bought Istan for his stallion potential.

Bill Mott, who has trained Istan since shortly after the horse was imported from France in the summer of 2005, said he and jockey Kent Desormeaux are confident Istan can win at 1 1/8 miles against the caliber of horses he faces Friday - something he has not yet done.

"I believe he's got a good chance to do this," said Mott. "Obviously he's already proven he's a very good miler, but we thought he deserved this opportunity."

Istan is one of at least three Clark runners who will be making their final start Friday. Purim and Magna Graduate also will be retired.

Purim, said trainer Tom Proctor, "didn't have a lot to prove by running one more time on the grass. Winning this race would really be a feather in his cap when he heads off to stud."

Magna Graduate, owned by Elisabeth Alexander, will be trying to match rare Churchill history, having narrowly defeated Suave to win the 2005 running. Only three horses have ever won the Clark more than once: Hodge (1914-15), Bold Favorite (1968-69), and Bob's Dusty (1977-78).

Going Ballistic, a gray Florida-bred colt, "has really improved as the year's gone on," said trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel. "He got beat pretty handily early in the year by Curlin, but he's come a ways since then. Now we've got to see how he can handle the older horses."

The Friday-after-Thanksgiving card always draws the biggest crowd of the Churchill fall meet in non-Breeders' Cup years, and more than 20,000 are expected again this year. The Clark is carded as the 11th of 12 races on a card that also includes the $200,000 River City Handicap (race 10) and the $65,000 Dream Supreme Handicap (race 8). First post is 11:30 a.m. Eastern.