Mark the Dates: Five Key Races to Finish Out 2018

Wise Dan, a future two-time Horse of the Year for his exploits on grass, won the 2011 Clark Handicap to earn his first Grade 1 win. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Now that the Breeders’ Cup is over, the North American Thoroughbred racing calendar becomes less hectic through the remaining two months, with fewer signature races scheduled.

Each year, results from World Championships usually determine most of the divisional winners recognized at the Eclipse Awards the following January, and 2018 is no different – although there’s definitely some intrigue building over whether Justify or Accelerate deserves Horse of the Year.

Even if most of the year-end champions have been all-but confirmed, there are important races remaining in November and December that should pique the interest of bettors (let’s face it, those races always exist, every day except Christmas) and fans who follow the sport’s star athletes. Here are five key contests scheduled for the weeks ahead that will put an exclamation point on what’s been a stellar year for horse racing and should also have significance in 2019:

The Race: Clark Handicap

When: Nov. 23

Where: Churchill Downs

Why: Voting for the champion older dirt male Eclipse Award is almost certain to be unanimous for Accelerate, but the Clark Handicap remains an important event in the handicap division with a great history, and this year’s edition offers fans a chance to gauge how that division will shape up in 2019 after Accelerate retires following a planned start in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational on Jan. 26. The 1 1/8-mile Clark has been won by the likes of reigning Horse of the Year Gun Runner (2016), champion Will Take Charge (2013), two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan (2011), Horse of the Year Saint Liam (2004), Kentucky Derby winner, champion, and Hall of Famer Silver Charm (1998), and many more accomplished racehorses. The 2017 winner, Seeking the Soul, is targeting the Clark again following a good runner-up effort in last week’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

The Race: Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes

When: Nov. 24

Where: Churchill Downs

Enticed, outside, edged Tiz Mischief in 2017. (Eclipse Sportswire)
Why: The Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes is the second of two fall prep races Churchill Downs offers for 2-year-olds on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, which is, of course, held under the same Twin Spires on the first Saturday of the following May. The 1 1/16-mile, two-turn race offers 17 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby, distributed on a 10-4-2-1 scale to the top four finishers. Most years, it attracts a full field of Derby prospects ready to test their developing talents on Churchill’s dirt track. Many of Churchill’s top trainers have a horse entered in the Kentucky Jockey Club each year, and there’s usually one or two from New York and/or California as well. Super Saver, winner of the 2010 Kentucky Derby, won this race the year before, and last year’s renewal was particularly strong as it produced four eventual starters in the 2018 Kentucky Derby, including eventual Grade 1 winner Promises Fulfilled and Preakness Stakes runner-up Bravazo. And Gun Runner ran fourth in this race as a juvenile in 2015.

The Race: Remsen Stakes

When: Dec. 1

Where: Aqueduct

Why: Like the Kentucky Jockey Club one week prior, this is a 17-point qualifying race for the 2019 Kentucky Derby. It’s also a sixteenth of a mile longer than the Kentucky Jockey Club. At 1 1/8 miles, the Remsen is, in fact, longer than most of the Derby preps held over the first two months of 2019, and is the same distance as major spring preps such as the Xpressbet Florida Derby and the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (also held at Aqueduct). It’s an important race to get an early look at which Kentucky Derby contenders can handle stretching out in distance, and winners over the past 15 years include Bluegrass Cat, Court Vision, To Honor and Serve, Honor Code, and last year’s winner (and eventual Runhappy Travers Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets winner) Catholic Boy.

The Race: Matriarch Stakes

When: Dec. 2

Where: Del Mar

Why: The Matriarch was annually one of the highlight events of Hollywood Park’s winter meet since the race’s inception in 1981, and has continued to be important since switching to Del Mar after Hollywood Park closed at the end of 2013. It now concludes Del Mar’s Bing Crosby meet, and usually draws a competitive field of female turf milers to make it an attractive betting race (11, 11, and 14 starters in the last three editions). Past winners include Miss Temple City, Ventura, Intercontinental, Heat Haze, and Starine (the last three trained by the late Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel, who also trained Ventura earlier in her career and dominated the Matriarch in the late 1990s and early 2000s). Last year, four horses shipped in from outside of California to run in the Matriarch, including the top two finishers, Off Limits and Hawksmoor. Look for this year’s renewal to draw similar interest from a few visiting trainers as they target the last Grade 1 turf race of the year.

The Race: Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity

When: Dec. 8

Where: Los Alamitos Race Course

Why: The last Kentucky Derby prep for 2-year-olds is also a 17-point race. Like the Matriarch, the 1 1/16-mile Cash Call Futurity was one of Hollywood Park’s most popular races ever since its first running in 1981, and its list of past winners includes more than its fair share of contemporary racing standouts – try Snow Chief in 1985, Best Pal in 1990, A.P. Indy in 1991, Real Quiet in 1997, Point Given in 2000, Lookin At Lucky in 2009, and Shared Belief in 2013, just for starters. McKinzie, now back in training for Bob Baffert, won the Cash Call Futurity last year, and while Baffert’s current juvenile star Game Winner is currently scheduled to skip the Futurity and resume racing at Santa Anita early in his 3-year-old season, it’s a good bet that the Hall of Famer will be represented by one or more other promising colts when the gates open at Los Alamitos on Dec. 8.

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