Noble Bird Sweeps into Clark Handicap on Winning Streak

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Noble Bird winning the Hagyard Fayette Stakes on Oct. 7 at Keeneland Race Course. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Momentum of the good kind has proven a tricky thing for Noble Bird.

When the son of Birdstone notched his first Grade 1 triumph in 2015, it figured to be the launching point for more of the same — not the four-race losing skid that followed. And just when the headstrong chestnut horse appeared to right the ship with an 11 1/4-length triumph in this year’s Grade 3 Pimlico Special Handicap, the wheels seemed to come loose again with consecutive off-the-board outings in Grade 1 races.

It is a tribute to his barn that Noble Bird has once again managed to swing the pendulum back to the positive in his last two starts. In an ironic twist, the horse who has had a most fitful relationship with consistency brings some of best recent form to the table in a competitive edition of the $500,000, Grade 1 Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare at Churchill Downs on Nov. 25.

There have been some particularly strong editions of the 1 1/8-mile Clark Handicap in recent seasons, and this year’s 10-horse field is no different. Noble Bird is one of four Grade 1 winners in the mix, including 3-1 morning-line favorite and 2014 winner Hoppertunity, and seven of the Clark entrants have surpassed the $1-million mark in career earnings.

Since being well-beaten in both the Mohegan Sun Metropolitan Handicap and Whitney Stakes, Noble Bird has gotten himself back on track with handy victories in the Oct. 1 Lukas Classic Stakes at Churchill and his track record-setting, 5 3/4-length win in the Grade 2 Hagyard Fayette Stakes at Keeneland on Oct. 29.

Trying to pin down the difference between the 7-2 morning-line second choice looking like the front-running force who won the 2015 Stephen Foster Handicap and him acting like an also-ran, assistant trainer Norman Casse said he believes it boils down to letting John Oxley’s mercurial runner do what he wants, when he wants.

“I think we’re really cautiously optimistic. He does throw in clunkers from time to time. With that being said ... he just gives us a whole lot of confidence right now,” said Casse, son and top assistant to trainer Mark Casse. “We don’t do too much with him between races because he’s kind of hard on himself. Maybe more importantly, now that Julien [Leparoux] has gotten the chance to ride him multiple times, he’s probably figured him out a little bit more what makes him tick.

“He doesn’t have to have the lead, but he doesn’t want to be held. But he also doesn’t like being rushed off his feet either, which is what we did in the Met Mile. He just wants to dictate things on his own terms and you have to let him feel like he’s in control. That seems to be what is pretty paramount going into the first turn with him.”

Effinex winning 2015 Clark. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Which, if any of Noble Bird’s nine challengers try and press him on the front end, could alter the complexion of the race for a handful of rivals.

Tri-Bone StablesEffinex won last year’s edition of the Clark to earn his first Grade 1 score but has struggled to maintain that form in seven starts since. The 5-year-old Mineshaft  horse bounced out of a sixth-place finish in the June 18 Stephen Foster with a win in the Grade 2 Suburban Handicap but has dropped three straight since, including a seventh-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 5.

Effinex is the 4-1 co-third choice on the morning line and will be joined in the gate by fellow Grade 1 winner and Jimmy Jerkens trainee Shaman Ghost.

There are few better models of consistency than Mike Pegram’s, Karl Watson’s and Paul Weitman’s Hoppertunity, who will be starting in the Clark Handicap for a third straight year having finished in the runner-up position in 2015. The 5-year-old Any Given Saturday horse has been worse than fourth just once in 23 career starts —that coming when he ran fifth in his career debut — and enters off a fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

A Grade 1 triumph is about the only thing missing from Gun Runner’s resume at this point. The hard-knocking 3-year-old son of Candy Ride was third in the year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and second in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile on Nov. 4, with his only dull efforts coming when he has raced on off tracks.

2016 Clark H.
November 25th, 2016

Winning Time: 1:48.50
  • Purse: $500,000
  • Distance: 1 1/8 Miles
  • Age: 3 yo's & up
  • Surface: Dirt
  • Winning Time: 1:48.50
Results
Win
Place
Show
1st
1 Gun Runner
$6.20
$4.20
$3.00
2nd
7 Breaking Lucky
$25.60
$11.00
3rd
4 Shaman Ghost
$4.20
4th
9 Hoppertunity
5th
5 Hawaakom
6th
2 Effinex
7th
6 Noble Bird
8th
3 Are You Kidding Me
9th
10 Prayer for Relief
10th
8 Mr. Z
Payoff
Pick 3
4-6-1
4-6-1
$478
Daily Double
6-1
6-1
$21
Exacta
1-7
1-7
$152
Superfecta
1-7-4-9
1-7-4-9
$2,153
Trifecta
1-7-4
1-7-4
$984
Payoff
Pick 3
4-6-1
4-6-1
$478
Daily Double
6-1
6-1
$21
Exacta
1-7
1-7
$152
Superfecta
1-7-4-9
1-7-4-9
$2,153
Trifecta
1-7-4
1-7-4
$984

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