LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A blazed-faced chestnut named Shackleford went out in a blaze of glory, earning an emotional victory for his connections in the final start of his standout career Friday in the 138th running of the Grade 1, $447,000 Clark Handicap, the annual fall showcase at Churchill Downs.
Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
With hometown trainer Dale Romans and dozens of supporters rooting their hearts out in the shadows of the Churchill lights, Shackleford dug down deep in the stretch to protect his race-long lead, taking the 1 1/8-mile race by a length over his race-long pursuer, Take Charge Indy.
"Unbelievable," Romans said in the immediate aftermath. "What a horse. I love that horse. We all love that horse."
Bred and owned in Kentucky by Mike Lauffer and Bill Cubbedge, Shackleford returned $7.80 as second choice in a field of nine 3-year-olds after finishing in 1:49.12 over a fast track. Bourbon Courage was just another head back in third, and it was a big gap of nearly seven lengths to Lunar Victory, the slight 5-2 favorite in a field of nine 3-year-olds and upward.
Jesus Castanon, who rode Shackleford to victory in the 2011 Preakness, was back aboard the 4-year-old colt for the Clark after a four-race absence. Unlike in his previous race, the Nov. 3 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile in which he finished a troubled seventh, Shackleford broke cleanly and swiftly from post 2 and proceeded straight to the early lead, a position from which he has enjoyed his best results.
"He relaxed, and nobody really came to him until they had to," said Castanon. "Then he gave me everything he had."
It could hardly get any better for Romans, who has enjoyed a breakthrough year and is one of the top contenders for the 2012 Eclipse Award for top trainer. Surrounded not only by his life partner, Tammy Fox, and their two grown children, but also by dozens of friends and business associates, Romans watched in his usual spot in the third-floor clubhouse and was mobbed when Shackleford crossed under the wire safely in front.
Shackleford, by Forestry, will soon head to Darby Dan Farm for 2013 stud duty. Romans had considered the Grade 1 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct on Saturday for a career finale. He earned $266,054 with his sixth win from 20 starts that also included triumphs in the Grade 1 Met Mile and Grade 2 Churchill Downs earlier this year. His career bankroll totals $3,090,101.
"Regardless of what happens in New York, I guess we made the right call," said Romans, who was born and raised in Louisville. "To win my first Clark . . . what a great thrill."
After Lunar Victory, the order of finish was Mission Impazible, Cease, Stealcase, Fast Falcon, and Eye of the Leopard. Pool Play was an early scratch.
The $2 exacta (3-6) paid $48.20; the $1 trifecta (3-6-4) returned $123.70; and the dime superfecta (3-6-4-10) was worth $43.16.
Churchill releases attendance figures only for major races, but the usual Friday-after-Thanksgiving throng turned out on a cool day that was sunny before the Clark was run.
** Earlier Friday, Salty Strike ($5) won the $67,100 Dream Supreme for the second year, rallying between rivals under Victor Lebron to prevail by a half-length over Cheery. Salty Strike, a 4-year-old filly trained by Ken McPeek, finished six furlongs in 1:09.74 in moving her record on the Churchill main track to 6 for 9.