Friday November 23rd: Race 11 at Churchill Downs. The $500,000 Grade 1 Clark Handicap presented by Norton Healthcare, run at 1 1/8 miles on the dirt, for three year olds and upward. (Post Time: 5:56 PM EDT).
(3) Seeking the Soul: The barn of trainer Dallas Stewart sends out this five year old son of Perfect Soul looking to defend his 2017 Clark Handicap (G1) title. Out of the entire eight horse field, Seeking the Soul is definitely the horse for course at Churchill Downs having finished in the trifecta in seven of his nine lifetime starts over the track including a win in the eight furlong AckAck Stakes (G3) and a well-beaten second behind City of Light in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) this year. Following a short 20 day layoff, Seeking the Soul stretches back out to nine furlongs, a distance at which he has hit the board in five of seven tries. While his last effort over nine panels in the Woodward Stakes (G1) at Saratoga in September was certainly disappointing, if he can repeat the form that he showed in the Dirt Mile then he should have no issues handling this field, especially given what appears to be a potential favorable pace scenario. Moreover, not only did Seeking the Soul earn a career best 108 Bris Speed Rating (BSR) in that Dirt Mile effort but he also appears to be coming into this race in peak form right now.
Seeking the Soul has what should be the ideal running style for this race as while he is an off the pace type runner, he is not a true deep closer. It is this versatility that gives his jockey, John Velazquez, some options in regards to where he wants to position his charge early on before mounting a bid for the lead as the field turns for home. There are a number of runners in this field that have consistently shown good early speed, both sprinting and routing, and thus the two most likely early runners, Prime Attraction and Storm Advisory, should be dictating swift fractions early on which will likely create an ideal pace scenario for Seeking the Soul to run after late. Despite Brian Hernandez having been aboard for a number of Seeking the Soul’s more recent efforts, Dallas Stewart elected to call an audible today and as a result Velazquez gets the call to ride, having been onboard when Seeking the Soul won the Clark last year. Over the past year, Velazquez has posted a 20% win rate in route races while Stewart is looking to close out a fairly successful fall meet at Churchill (20% win rate and 48% rate finishing in the money) with a signature win. Seeking the Soul’s most recent work was not particularly flashy and was nothing more than a tune-up for this race as Stewart likely just wanted to maintain Seeking the Soul’s fitness levels coming into this race. Seeking the Soul is one of the more underrated horses of this year but he definitely appears to be the horse to beat in this race; however, keep in mind that he is going to be a very short price (ML odds are 8/5 and likely to dip even lower by post time).
(5) Leofric: Trainer Brad Cox sends out this five year old son of Candy Ride looking to build upon a last out win in the Fayette Stakes (G2) back in October at Keeneland in which he narrowly prevailed over rival Prime Attraction. In that race he received an ideal trip from jockey Florent Geroux and after sitting just off of the pace for much of the race, Leofric moved up to challenge his foe for the lead down the stretch before finally edging clear at the wire. Although the 98 BSR that he earned in that last effort, over a muddy track, pales in comparison to some of the other runners’ last out speed figures, if Leofric can match that performance or even move slightly forward then he should be at the very least competitive today against this assembled field. This year Leofric has finished in the money in all six of his efforts and over the course of his career has missed hitting the board just twice in thirteen starts. Additionally, he has finished in the trifecta in both tries at today’s nine furlong distance.
Leofric’s running style is incredibly versatile. While he generally prefers to be forwardly placed either on the lead (he actually led the field for the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes for almost the entire race before finally ceding to the two big closers in the waning moments of the race) or rating just off of the pace, Leofric has won running from last before as well. However, he likely will not be on the lead for this race as not only are Prime Attraction and Storm Advisory much speedier than him but also engaging in a speed duel early on with those two could lead to potentially disastrous results. Instead, expect to see Geroux tactically position his mount and allow him to sit back and stalk the pace. Hopefully this should allow him to get first jump on the pacesetters before the closers start to wind up for their runs. Over the past three years Brad Cox has been firing at the insane rate of 29% not only with runners that won their last race (60% rate of finishing in the money) but also with runners that are routing (58% in the money rate). Additionally, Geroux has been winning at a 24% rate when riding in route races this year. Leofric fired off an incredibly sharp work over a muddy four furlongs on November 16th over the Churchill main track and appears to be in excellent form coming into this race. In addition, over the course of his career, Leofric is a perfect three for three in winning his second start off of a layoff. As a result, Leofric looms as the biggest threat to deny Seeking the Soul in this race especially if the pace does not set up well for closers. Thus consider Leofric as either the most likely alternative to win this race or as a quality candidate to finish second.
(6) Bravazo: The only three year old in the entire field, this son of Awesome Again, trained by the legendary D. Wayne Lukas is just a cool horse. Bravazo produced an incredibly game effort when taking on older rivals to finish third in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in his most recent effort. He is a throwback to the classic old school war horses as this will be his 11th start this year and with the exception of his efforts in the Belmont Stakes (G1) and Pennsylvania Derby (G1), he has time and time again, shown up and danced every dance and then come back for more. Today’s outing will be his fifth start off of a mid-summer layoff and during that time period he has posted three BSRs of greater than 100 including a career best 105 BSR in that Dirt Mile performance. While nine furlongs is likely not his preferred distance (he has hit the board just once, a second place finish, in three starts), he will certainly try and give another good account of himself today, if there’s anything left in the tank after a long campaign.
As the year has gone on, Bravazo’s running style has developed into that of a mid-pack stalker and that has gone hand in hand with an improving ability to sit off of the pace. There is one area of concern for him though as it seems that a disturbing tendency to go extremely wide in the final turns of his past several races has arisen. While Bravazo generally is able to correct course and recover to get back into contention once he hits the stretch, his inability to handle turns can be a bit sapping for his momentum and could potentially stymie a nice closing run if it happens once again today. Additionally, Bravazo will be receiving the services of a new jockey today in Joel Rosario, as he had been previously piloted by either Luis Contreras or Luis Saez for a number of his more recent starts. Although it will be an unfamiliar presence aboard Bravazo today, Rosario has done quite well not only riding in route races this year (21% win rate and 56% rate of finishing in the money) but he currently boasts a 33% win rate over the course of the Churchill fall meet. Bravazo’s last work over the main track at Churchill on November 14th was a nice solid tune-up leading into this race, so he should be in good form despite the somewhat short 20 day layoff. It is highly unlikely that Bravazo wins this race today unless something absolutely bizarre happens but he is a solid enough horse so figure on him to be running late once again, picking up the pieces and collecting another minor award.