Saint Liam, left, holds off a late run by Seek Gold to win the Clark Handicap.

Saint Liam, left, holds off a late run by Seek Gold to win the Clark Handicap.

AP/Garry Jones

Saint Liam Spirited Winner of Clark Handicap

Heavily favored Saint Liam repelled the challenges of Perfect Drift and Seek Gold in the stretch and pulled away to victory in the $558,000 Clark Handicap (gr. II) at Churchill Downs Friday.

Ridden by Edgar Prado for trainer Richard Dutrow Jr., Saint Liam overcame a difficult start and drifted out during the drive but was pulling away from his rivals to win by 1 1/4 lengths over 42-1 Seek Gold, who nosed Perfect Drift for second.

"The other horse (Seek Gold) almost knocked me off my horse," said Prado. "I'm lucky it didn't happen."

It was the first graded stakes win for Saint Liam, who had been graded stakes placed in his three previous races.

"He deserved this one," said Dutrow. "He got really banged pretty bad coming out of the gate and had a chance of being eliminated if he didn't want to keep his ground."

The 6-5 choice in a field of nine, Saint Liam, a 4-year-old Saint Ballado colt, validated his neck loss to Ghostzapper in the Woodward (gr. I) at Belmont Sept. 11 in his last start. He had put together a series of sparkling drills for Dutrow at Aqueduct in preparation for the Clark.

The final time for the 1 1/8-mile Clark was 1:50 4/5 on a fast track.

Runner-up Seek Gold, trained by Nick Zito and ridden by Larry Melancon, was a problem loading, holding up the start for a couple of minutes. Once finally in the gate, he reared at the break, banging into Saint Liam hard as they came away, and trailed the field by several lengths heading into the clubhouse turn. He rallied impressively, however, splitting horses in the stretch to post a good second-place finish to an eventful effort.

"Right out of there, I got nailed," said Melancon. "If he breaks, we'd probably be doing okay. He ran a big race after that. But he was shaking his head and whether he was going to show any more pace after that, I don't know."

Perfect Drift edged up to the leader's flanks near the eighth pole for Kent Desormeaux but did not finish strongly and gave up the place spot in the final strides. Perfect Drift, a winner of more than $3.1 million in his career, remained winless in 2004 after nine starts, all stakes races. He has five seconds and two thirds, however. With $55,800 earned for Fridays' effort, the gelding has won $947,595 this year.

Lundy's Liability, the 120-pound high weight, went to the lead for David Flores as Saint Liam, who received three pounds, tracked in second through fractions of :24, :48 and 1:12 3/5. As Saint Liam edged up on the outside, Lundy's Liability wilted at the top of the stretch as stalking Perfect Drift picked up the chase. Suave, who also stalked the pace, finished fourth as Seek Gold drove past both late.

Saint Liam, who earned $345,960 for the victory, improved to 2-2-1 in five starts in 2004 while banking $618,760 for owners Mr. and Mrs. William K. Warren Jr. A $130,000 Fasig-Tipton sale in August 2001, he's earned $760,035 lifetime with five wins in 14 tries.

Edward P. Evans bred the winner, who is out of the Quiet American mare Quiet Dance, in Kentucky.

Saint Liam paid $4.40, $3.40 and $2.60. Seek Gold returned $25.60 and $7.60 while completing a $100.60 exacta. Perfect Drift's show was $2.60.

After Suave, it was Eurosilver, Lundy's Liability, Pies Prospect, Colonila colony and Sir Cherokee. Fantastic scratched.

(Chart, Equibase)