While I live in Lexington, Ky., there are only a few big races a year I get to make it to within about an hour of my apartment. While some might not call it a major race, the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs the day after Thanksgiving is one of those races I categorize as a “must-see event.”
The Clark holds a special place in my heart because it was the first big race I was able to attend after moving to Lexington last year. For the past year, and right up until the finish tonight, I was convinced that the 2012 edition – won by Shackleford - couldn’t be eclipsed but I’m happy to admit I was wrong.
While the weather called for chilly temperatures this weekend, it was actually a very nice day under the Twin Spires. The first place I went after dropping my stuff off in the press center was the paddock to check out one of the early-race fields. There was already a large crowd gathered around the paddock fence and everyone looked thrilled to be at the track.
It’s a Churchill Downs tradition for one of my friends and me to go up and watch at least one of the races next to the spires, so that was my next stop. Of course, when one is by the spires, one must take a photo, even if one already has a ton of them.
Photo courtesy of Nicole Russo
If you ever have a chance to watch a race from the fourth floor at Churchill, I recommend you do it. I am a fan that likes to be near the rail but it’s always fun to spend a race or two upstairs when I get the chance. The views are much different than you see from the rail, and when the horses are racing on the turf it gives you a clearer view of the finish.
The best moment of the day, fan-wise, may have come a few races later when race fan Mary Jane Quest’s family sponsored a race in celebration of her 100th birthday. Julien Leparoux won the race on Rakete and Mary Jane tried to give him the winner’s trophy but Julien had her keep it. She looked thrilled after the winner’s circle presentation when she was returning from the track. My new goal is to look as good as her when I’m that age!
A race later, I couldn’t help but smile when Liberated won her first race of the year. The 3-year-old filly by Curlin calls Churchill home and couldn’t have looked happier to cross the line in first.
As we got closer to the big race, the already-busy track got busier. It was great to see such a large crowd out at the track, especially with so much at stake for the horses.
Finally, it was time for the Clark. There were two major championships on the line with Will Take Charge going for champion 3-year-old male and Game On Dude going for champion older male. A win for either of them would most likely seal up their respective championship and you could feel the tension in the paddock.
D. Wayne Lukas, Will Take Charge’s Hall of Fame trainer, took a moment pre-saddling to talk on camera. His colt was coming off a heartbreaking loss in the Breeders’ Cup Classic four weeks ago but was one of the favorites for the race.
Easter Gift was the first horse to arrive in the paddock and there was a line of equine paparazzi waiting for him. While I was a little worried about Easter Gift’s chances in this field, he was my dark-horse pick going into the race, mostly because of sentimental reasons. He is by Hard Spun, who is one of my favorite horses, and I have followed Easter Gift since he was named (before he raced). I’ve never seen him run in person so it was great to finally see him in the flesh.
The rest of the nine-horse field started trickling in after Easter Gift, including a very happy Golden Ticket. Golden Ticket was coming off of a second-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. He is one of those horses that you always kind of forget about who usually puts in good performances. He’s another one that I had never seen in person and I was not disappointed.
Of course, all eyes were on the big blaze coming down the tunnel a few horses later. It’s hard to miss Will Take Charge as he stands over 17 hands tall (a hand is four inches) and he looked like the Breeders’ Cup Classic took next to nothing out of him. It’s not hard to see why the flashy colt is a fan favorite.
Last in to the paddock was Game On Dude. He won all of his races this year before the Breeders’ Cup and is the top older dirt male. He went off as the 6-to-5 favorite and wasn’t at much higher odds when he walked into the paddock.
The horses made their way onto the track as the sun was setting, making a perfect background for the warm-ups. For those that love seeing a well-matched set of horses, Will Take Charge and his pony added a little extra to the whole scene.
The best part of the Clark for fans is that the race starts on the front stretch so you get to see the horses soon after the break. It was kind of surprising to see Our Double Play (who finished seventh) and Jaguar Paw (who finished fifth) in front instead of Game On Dude as they passed me for the first time but that didn’t seem to bug Game On Dude too much.
As they ran down the stretch, the crowd was deafening. It was amazing listening to the cheering for both Game On Dude and Will Take Charge as Will Take Charge finished powerfully to grab the lead just before the finish line.
In the end, all the photographers were looking at our cameras trying to figure out which horse was ahead at the wire. It was nearly a scripted end to the race when they were within a head of each other with Will Take Charge getting the win, a fitting victory given that he had lost the Breeders’ Cup by only a nose.
When Will Take Charge came back to the winner’s circle, it was obvious both he and jockey Luis Saez were proud of themselves.
Owner Willis Horton led Will Take Charge into the winner’s circle and later said “This is a lifelong dream. This is what I've been waiting on and I finally got it.”
After the winner’s circle presentation, Lukas talked to the press about possible plans for Will Take Charge going into 2014, including a potential run in the Dubai World Cup.
This year’s Clark definitely lived up to every expectation. Between the entertaining racing and at least one of this year’s championships being settled on the track, the Clark again was a good way to end any post-Breeders’ Cup racing withdrawal that fans might have been experiencing.
For those that missed the race, I suggest you go find a replay and make plans to attend the 2014 edition. You definitely won’t be disappointed if you do!