On a day that Todd Pletcher set the North American earnings record for trainers, an ultra-game Magna Graduate proved to be his cherry on top, winning the $573,500 Clark Handicap (gr. II) before 13,881 at chilly Churchill Downs Friday by a head over Suave.
Pressed throughout on the front end of the 1 1/8-mile event, Magna Graduate dug deep after being headed by the 2-1 favorite Suave in mid-stretch and just got up at the wire under furious left-handed urging by Pletcher's number one rider John Velazquez.
"It was a heck of a race and both horses ran great," said Pletcher. "It was nip-and-tuck. I just kept hoping that he'd keep fighting, which he did."
"It was just a tough beat," said Paul J. McGee, who trains runner-up Suave for Jay Em Ess Stable. "From the three-eighths pole to the quarter pole, he came with his move. He just came up a half-a-head short."
The victory continued a torrid weekend at Churchill Downs for Pletcher and Velazquez, who teamed to win the $300,000 Falls City Handicap (gr. III) with Indian Vale on Thanksgiving Day.
Perfect Drift ran third, four lengths behind, after making a big move while about nine paths wide on the outside heading into the stretch. But after making significant progress to the furlong pole, the 3-1 second choice failed to engage the first two.
The final time was 1:50 4/5.
The 3-year-old Magna Graduate, a son of Honor Grades, won his third consecutive race, all in graded stakes, and went over the $1 million mark in career earnings for owner Elisabeth H. Alexander. The Clark, which carried a winning purse of $355,570, was the colt's first race against older campaigners.
Magna Graduate went to the front from the outset and ran as a team with 98-1 shot Go Now through early fractions of :24 1/5, :48 2/5 and 1:12 2/5. As Go Now gave way, Suave, who had been positioned in third on the outside, took up the challenge for jockey Rafael Bejarano. As the field fanned out coming off the final turn, Magna Graduate, on the inside while racing well off the rail, went head-to-head in a terrific duel with Suave.
"Every time I asked him for a little bit more, he gave me that little bit more," said Velazquez. "I was confident in him. I didn't know if I was going to have enough to hold on to it. That other horse is a very nice horse too. But he just kept trying a little more."
Magna Graduate carried 116 pounds, two less than Suave and six fewer than Perfect Drift, the high weight. He was coming off victories in Belmont's 1 1/16-mile Discovery Handicap (gr. III) Oct. 29 and the Meadowland's 1 1/8-mile Pegasus (gr. III) a month prior to that. Magna Graduate improved his overall mark to 6-3-3 in 15 starts with earnings of $1,147,002. The dark bay won for the second time in six tries at nine furlongs.
Pletcher surpassed Bobby Frankel's single season earnings record of $19,147,129 with a win earlier in the day at Aqueduct. The sizzling Pletcher stable will have an opportunity to continue its streak of stakes success at Churchill Downs on Saturday, the closing day of the track's 21-day fall meet. Pletcher will bid for an unprecedented sweep of the four stakes events when he saddles Magnificent Song in the $200,000 Golden Rod Stakes (gr. II) for 2-year-old fillies, and High Cotton in the $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II) for 2-year-olds.
Nicole Zitani and Ramon Rangel bred the winner, who is out of Peacock Alley (by Fast Play), in Kentucky. Magna Graduate was a Keeneland September yearling buy for $30,000 in 2003.
The third choice, Magna Graduate paid $10, $5.20 and $3.40. Suave, who was coming off a fifth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic Sponsored by Dodge (gr. I), returned $4.20 and $2.80. Perfect Drift, who was third in the Classic, was $2.40 to show under Mark Guidry.
Perfect Drift finished a neck in front of the closing Andromeda's Hero, who was a head better than M B Sea. Then came A.P. Arrow, Purim, Alumni Hall, Go Now, Total Impact, Chippewa Trail and Stolen Time.