The Grade 1 Clark Stakes provides the final opportunity for Maxfield to grab a Grade 1 win. It’s an opportunity for Midnight Bourbon to shake his seconditis and grab his first Grade 1. And it provides a great opportunity for Dr. Post and King Fury to grab validation in their heretofore inconsistent careers.

Midnight Bourbon-Clark
Midnight Bourbon comes into Friday’s Grade 1 Clark at Churchill Downs with five runners-up finishes. That includes this Travers Stakes outing in August. (Image: Anne M. Eberhardt)

Along the way, the Clark provides horseplayers with one of the most juicy handicapping puzzles of Thanksgiving weekend.

Named after Churchill Downs’ founder, Col. Merriweather Lewis Clark, the 1 1/8-mile Clark is one of four stakes races going back to the track’s 1875 inaugural season. You find the likes of 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner, Hall of Famer Wise Dan, 2009 Horse of the Year Blame, 1998 Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm and 1942 Triple Crown winner Whirlaway on its winner’s roll. Gun Runner (2/1) was one of four favorites in the last 10 years to win the Clark. The last was Tom’s d’Etat at 4/5 two years ago.

This year, you find an eclectic field of talented colts and horses seeking validation in one of the late fall’s last big Grade 1s. The Clark field is a combined 34-for-113 with more than $6.4 million in earnings and the $750,000 purse is going to burnish several horses’ earnings.

Maxfield’s final Grade 1 opportunity

That start with the 6/5 favorite: Maxfield. Trainer Brendan Walsh kept him out of the Breeders’ Cup, choosing to send him out here in search of his first Grade 1 since the 2019 Breeders’ Futurity. That the 4-year-old Street Sense colt is undefeated in four Churchill Downs starts played into that decision. This includes two Grade 2 scores this year: the Stephen Foster and Alysheba.

But a non-juvenile Grade 1 remains elusive. Maxfield comes into his last race carrying triple-digit Beyers in his last four starts and has those two Grade 2s and seconds in the Grade 1 Whitney (to Knicks Go) and Woodward (to Art Collector) to show for it. It’s all or nothing here for a colt who has never missed the board in 10 starts (7-2-1).

A victory of any sort remains elusive for 8/5 second-favorite Midnight Bourbon. He hasn’t won since taking the Grade 3 Lecomte in January. That was eight races ago. Since then, the Tiznow 3-year-old has four seconds. That includes last out’s runner-up finish to Hot Rod Charlie in the Pennsylvania Derby and the start before that, a second to Essential Quality in the Travers.

Midnight Bourbon can toast this Clark — if he finishes

Both came with 107 Beyers, which illustrates Midnight Bourbon has the early speed to take this field, which is lacking in front-end speed. Expect to see him out early and if he can get past his stretch fades, Midnight Bourbon can be the first 3-year-old Clark champion since Gun Runner.

You’ll likely see Dr. Post (5/1) stalking not far behind Midnight Bourbon. And like Midnight Bourbon, Dr. Post doesn’t mail in races. He’s 2-for-5 this year with a pair of thirds, including his last two outings: the Woodward and Pacific Classic, both Grade 1s. He comes into the Clark off a modest four-furlong work at Belmont Park (49.05). Before that, however, the Quality Road colt fired a 59.57 five-furlong bullet that was the fastest of 25 at that distance that day.

Dr. Post gets the services of Irad Ortiz Jr., who passed up riding Happy Saver (8/1), the other Todd Pletcher in the eight-horse Clark field. The 4-year-old Super Saver colt comes in off a two-race losing streak, albeit those being a third in the Suburban Stakes and a second in defense of his Jockey Club Gold Cup title from 2020. He has the speed and Churchill Downs’ leading jockey, Tyler Gaffalione, to contend. But Happy Saver needs to duplicate his 2020 Jockey Club Gold Cup outing to do so.

Grade 1 Clark Stakes/Churchill Downs

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. Midnight Bourbon, 8/5 (Joel Rosario/Steve Asmussen)
  2. Night Ops, 15/1 (Florent Geroux/Brad Cox)
  3. Post, 5/1 (Irad Ortiz Jr./Todd Pletcher)
  4. Happy Saver, 8/1 (Tyler Gaffalione/Todd Pletcher)
  5. King Fury, 12/1 (Brian Hernandez Jr./Kenny McPeek)
  6. Chess Chief, 30/1 (Joe Talamo/Dallas Stewart)
  7. Militarist, 50/1 (Rafael Bejarano/Carlo Vaccareza)
  8. Maxfield, 6/5 (Jose Ortiz/Brendan Walsh)

The intriguing long shot is King Fury (12/1). He likes the Twin Spires, winning the Bourbon Trail by 13 lengths and the Grade 3 Lexington as one of the last stops on the Derby trail. But the 3-year-old Curlin colt doesn’t like Grade 1 competition, finishing a combined 18 ¼ lengths back in his two Grade 1 outings: the Travers (fifth) and Saratoga Derby Invitational (10th). He comes in off a third in the Grade 2 Fayette last out and this may be a bridge too far in the class department.

The pick: Midnight Bourbon. We do this with a caveat in the odds department, because he and Maxfield are going to take oceans of cash here. His front-running style fits this field well, but its negated somewhat by his stretch failings and likely low value. Better value exists with Dr. Post, who can win this with his best race.