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Shackleford faces nine in Clark in career finale

Classic winner Shackleford (right) will make his final career start in the Clark Handicap (Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer photography)

Shackleford, whose Grade 1 exploits include the 2011 Preakness and the Metropolitan Handicap last May, will bow out of the racing scene Friday in the Grade 1, $400,000 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs. The 1 1/8-mile Clark, which dates to Churchill's founding year of 1875, anchors the 12-race Black Friday program, with the Clark set to go off shortly after sunset.

An earner of more than $2.8 million, Shackleford will be retiring to stud at Darby Dan Farm following the Clark. Despite winning the Preakness and finishing a close second in the Grade 1 Florida Derby and Grade 1 Haskell Invitational last year, the four-year-old son of Forestry has generally stuck to races at 1 1/16 miles or shorter over the past 13 months. The one exception, the Grade 1 Donn Handicap over nine furlongs last February, resulted in a seventh-place finish.

The focus on shorter races, mostly around one turn, has paid dividends. In addition to his win in the Met Mile on Memorial Day, Shackleford also registered a victory over champion sprinter Amazombie in the Grade 2 Churchill Downs at seven furlongs on Derby Day and placed in both the Grade 1 Carter Handicap and Grade 2 Kelso Handicap.

Outside of the Donn, Shackleford turned in disappointing efforts in only two other starts this term. Reportedly disliking the mud when trailing in the Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap, the chestnut bobbled leaving the gate in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile last time and never fully recovered in that two-turn event at Santa Anita November 3.

Preferring to stick closer to home rather than travel to New York Saturday for the Grade 1 Cigar Mile, Shackleford will carry top weight of 120 pounds in the Clark with Jesus Castanon regaining the mount for the first time since the Met Mile.

"I wanted to run him at Churchill Downs and didn't want to ship him," trainer Dale Romans said. "He's doing good here right now and he likes this racetrack. I think he'll run big and the 1 1/8 miles might be a little easier on him pace wise than the (Cigar) Mile."

Pool Play, who captured the 2011 Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap in his only prior race under the Twin Spires, enters off an eighth-place effort in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Classic. Undoubtedly hindered to some degree by the speed-favoring nature of the Santa Anita strip, the seven-year-old had preceded that race with an upset win in the Grade 2 Hawthorne Gold Cup over 1 1/4 miles. Second in the Gold Cup was returning foe Cease, a stakes winner who finished third in the Grade 1 Woodward two back.

The Clark lost some luster Tuesday with the announcement that Neck 'n Neck, recent winner of the Grade 3 Ack Ack Handicap and Grade 2 Indiana Derby, would be sidelined indefinitely after fracturing a sesamoid following a workout last weekend. There will still be plenty of sophomore representation in the Clark, with Take Charge Indy and Bourbon Courage both looking for their first stakes wins against older horses.

Florida Derby winner Take Charge Indy will seek a second top-level win of the season (Adam Coglianese Photography)

Grade 1 Florida Derby winner Take Charge Indy, who exited a 19th-place effort in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby with an injury, returned to the track in the Grade 2 Fayette at Keeneland last month. Turning in a good effort, the son of A.P. Indy led the field to the eighth pole before weakening to third, 2 1/2 lengths behind the victorious Newsdad.

"He got so much out of (the Fayette)," trainer Pat Byrne said. "I bet he's five or six lengths better (now). I was so apprehensive going into the Fayette off a six-month layoff, but I could only train him so much. He nearly pulled it off."

Bourbon Courage, who landed the Grade 2 Super Derby by five lengths in September, was a sharp second in the Grade 2 West Virginia Derby before that. Most recently, the Kellyn Gorder charge re-rallied to finish second by a length to Neck 'n Neck in the October 6 Indiana Derby.

The other three-year-olds in the Clark lineup are Fast Falcon, who endured photo-finish losses in the Grade 1 Travers and Grade 2 Dwyer, and Grade 3 Ontario Derby winner Stealcase, who has placed in three graded stakes over the Churchill strip this year.

Lunar Victory, owned by Juddmonte Farms, will make a rare venture into open company for the Clark. Since his re-importation last year, the Bill Mott trainee has made six of his eight starts against New York-bred foes. Never worse than second since his return to these shores, the son of Speightstown has captured the Empire Classic and Evan Shipman for state-breds and prevailed in both open company attempts against allowance foes.

The veteran multiple Grade 2 winner Mission Impazible, who finished second in both the Stephen Foster and the Clark in 2011, has raced just once in the past five months, finishing second in a third-level allowance at Belmont Park on October 25. The gray appears to have lost a step this season and is winless since taking the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap in March 2011.

The Clark field is rounded out by the D. Wayne-Lukas trained longshot Eye of the Leopard, whose last stakes win occurred in the 2009 Queen's Plate.

Earlier on Friday's card, multiple Grade 3 winner Salty Strike heads a field of seven fillies and mares in the $65,000 Dream Supreme over six furlongs. The Kenny McPeek-trained filly turned in a rare dull effort over the Churchill strip last time when third as the favorite in the Grade 2 Chilukki.

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