Starting on Thanksgiving Day and continuing through Sunday, a bevy of graded stakes races are slated to take place at racetracks throughout the United States. Falling three weeks after the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, the Thanksgiving-week stakes slate annually ranks among the most fun and competitive weeks of racing on the national calendar.
Yet even in the midst of all this high-class action, Friday’s $500,000, Grade 1 Clark Stakes Presented by Norton Healthcare at Churchill Downs stands out as a truly special event. The 1 1/8-mile race has attracted 15 entries (with 14 allowed to start), and trying to pick the winner is like trying to pick which electronics to buy from a Black Friday sale. There are simply too many options to choose from!
The slight favorite will likely be #3 Code of Honor, a talented 4-year-old conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey. The son of Noble Mission was among the leading sophomores of 2019, finishing second in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve before rattling off victories in the Grade 3 Dwyer Stakes, Grade 1 Runhappy Travers Stakes, and Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup during a productive summer/fall campaign.
But Code of Honor has struggled to regain top form in 2020. Racing primarily in one-turn races shorter than he prefers, Code of Honor won the Grade 3 Westchester Stakes to kick off the season, but subsequently finished third in the Grade 1 Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap, fourth in the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes, and second in the Grade 2 Kelso Handicap.
Some will view Code of Honor in a skeptical light based off his recent defeats, but it’s worth noting he’s repeatedly been compromised by slow early/fast late race shapes. In the Kelso, for example, Code of Honor was put in a tricky position chasing modest splits of :23.30 and :46.61 while facing just three rivals. The way the race unfolded gave an advantage to the pace-tracking Complexity (himself a proven Grade 1 winner), so the fact Code of Honor finished second by just 2 ¼ lengths – while pulling 7 ¼ lengths clear of the rest – could be considered a step in the right direction.
I expect Code of Honor to deliver an improved performance while stretching back out around two turns in the Clark, but he’s hardly the only talented horse in the field. Four-time graded stakes winner #12 By My Standards will be a popular alternative, considering he rolled to a comfortable victory in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 2 Alysheba Stakes Presented by Sentient Jet at Churchill Downs two starts back.
A capable 4-year-old conditioned by hot trainer Bret Calhoun, By My Standards finished ahead of Code of Honor when second in the Whitney. He has the speed figures to contend on his best day, but a dull eighth-place effort in the Grade 1 Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic has thrown a sour note into By My Standards’ otherwise impressive form. Can he rebound while running back just 20 days later?
Alysheba runner-up #9 Owendale finished second in the 2019 Clark, in the process showcasing a clear affinity for Churchill Downs. The stretch-running son of Into Mischief wasn’t badly beaten when fifth in the Big Ass Fans Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile three weeks ago, but finishing on the board this Friday seems more likely than visiting the winner’s circle.
The same can be said of four-time graded stakes winner #7 Mr Freeze, sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and third in the 2019 Clark. On his best day, Mr Freeze can hold his own against tough company – he finished second in the Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup Invitational back in January. But his signature victories have all come against slightly easier competition.
Taking all of this information together, it seems as though the Clark is a wide-open race lacking any obvious standouts. So why not take a shot throwing #11 Coastal Defense on to your tickets at a huge price?
A stoutly-bred son of Curlin out of a Giant’s Causeway mare, Coastal Defense is bred to thrive running two turns on dirt, so it wasn’t surprising to see the Dale Romans trainee post a sharp victory in his first start over that configuration. Favored at 11-10 in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race on Sept. 27 at Churchill Downs, Coastal Defense led all the way and finished fast to defeat Kentucky Derby starter Major Fed by 2 1/2 lengths.
Coastal Defense subsequently endured a nightmare trip when making his stakes debut in Keeneland’s 1 1/8-mile Grade 2 Hagyard Fayette Stakes. Breaking from the rail, the chestnut colt was trapped behind runners for much of the journey, waiting for racing room while the leaders carved out a slow pace. When Coastal Defense attempted to shift outside early on the far turn, he was cut off by a rival and forced to steady, losing ground at a key point in the race.
Even then, Coastal Defense’s troubles didn’t end. Bounced around between rivals at the top of the stretch, Coastal Defense looked for racing room on the inside, but lacked a clear path down the lane. Despite these obstacles, Coastal Defense never gave up, closing resolutely to finish fourth by just 1 ¼ lengths against Mr Freeze.
I’m optimistic Coastal Defense will show improvement in the Clark. Drawing post 11 should set the stage for a clean, unencumbered journey, allowing the improving 4-year-old to produce his best effort.
Bettors on a small budget should consider boxing Coastal Defense in the exacta with Code of Honor and By My Standards. If he finishes in the top two, the payoff will be lucrative; if not, we’ll still have a chance to catch a small profit if the favorites run 1-2 in either order.
Bolder bettors with bigger budgets can take this strategy a step further and play Coastal Defense with the favorites in a pair of trifecta tickets, setting the stage for a potentially massive payoff if our live longshot lands in the winner’s circle.
Wagering Strategy on a $12 Budget
$2 exacta box: 3,11,12 ($12)
What to say at the betting window: Churchill Downs, 10th race, $2 exacta box 3,11,12
Wagering Strategy on a $30 Budget
$0.50 trifecta: 3,11,12 with 3,11,12 with 1,3,5,7,9,11,12 ($15)
What to say at the betting window: Churchill Downs, 10th race, $0.50 trifecta 3,11,12 with 3,11,12 with 1,3,5,7,9,11,12 ($15)
$0.50 trifecta: 3,11,12 with 1,3,5,7,9,11,12 with 3,11,12 ($15)
What to say at the betting window: Churchill Downs, 10th race, $0.50 trifecta 3,11,12 with 1,3,5,7,9,11,12 with 3,11,12 ($15)
Good luck, and enjoy the race!