Friday's $572,000 Clark Handicap, run for the first time as a grade I race, went to the only grade I winner in the field – by a bunch – when favored Premium Tap left his rivals far behind leaving the Churchill Downs' eighth pole in nearly track record time.
Reunited with Kent Desormeaux, who was aboard the 4-year-old Pleasant Tap
colt when they captured the Woodward (gr. I) at Saratoga this summer, Premium Tap proved much the best by 7 1/4 lengths. Wild Desert nosed A.P. Arrow for second. The time for the 1 1/8-mile Clark, contested for the 132nd time, was 1:47.39. The track mark is owned by Victory Gallop
, who was clocked in 1:47.28 in the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) on June 12, 1999.
"I've been around this horse a lot, but I've never seen him this sharp," Desormeaux said. "He ran lights out."
Establishing himself as one of the nation's leading handicap horses, Premium Tap soared past the $1 million mark in career earnings.
Premium Tap was coming off a third-place finish behind Invasor and Bernardini in the Breeders' Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I) -- when trainer John Kimmel took Desormeaux off in favor of Edgar Prado Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs. The decision followed a troubled fifth-place run in the Kentucky Cup Classic (gr. II) at Turfway Park Sept. 30. Prior to that, Premium Tap won the 1 1/8-mile Woodward by a half-length at odds of 31-1.
"The horse was training great, and every time he's trained great, he's run great," Kimmel said. "Everybody wants to second-guess him off his Breeders' Cup performance, but good horses when they're doing right are going to run well, and he did."
The biggest worry for his connections Friday was getting the stubborn bay colt into the starting gate. After delaying the race for several minutes, assistant starters were able to back Premium Tap into the gate, load the remainder of the field, and send them on their way.
Desormeaux had Premium Tap well positioned from the start as they tracked a fast pace in third while well off the rail and about six or seven lengths behind Bright One, who took command from Wanderin Boy shortly after the start and pushed ahead by several lengths after fractions of :22 2/5 for the opening quarter mile and :45 4/5 for the half. As Bright One gave way rounding the final turn, Wanderin Boy inherited the lead after six furlongs in 1:10 1/5, but Premium Tap, followed by Master Command, rallied quickly on the outside. In the stretch run, Premium Tap got the lead as Wanderin Boy labored and Master Command began to tire. Approaching the furlong marker, Premium Tap was in front by nearly four lengths and on his way to a laugher.
Wild Desert, up for second along the inside under strong urging from Cornelio Velasquez, held off A.P. Arrow and Rafael Bejarano by a nose for second, with Master Command and John Velazquez another nose behind in fourth.
Enjoying by far his richest victory, Premium Tap's sixth win in 17 lifetime starts was worth $329,816, which pushed his earnings to $1,307,096 for owners George Kline, Peter Alevizos, and David Whelihan. Machmer Hall and W.S. Farish bred Premium Tap, who is out of Premium Red, by Thirty Six Red, in Kentucky. He was a $60,000 Ocala buy in March 2004.
The 9-5 choice, Premium Tap paid $5.60, $4.40, and $3.20. Wild Desert returned $9.40 and $7.20. A.P. Arrow was $6 to show.
Master Command, who was compromised by a poor start from his extreme outside post, finished one length in front of Irene's Mon. Then came Wandrin Boy, the now-retired Super Frolic, It's No Joke, Wiggins, Andromeda's Hero, M B Sea, and Bright One.
"I thought we might be catching (Premimum Tap) on the right day, but that was not the case by any means," said Todd Pletcher, trainer of Master Command.