Few races have played the role of crystal ball in recent years as accurately as Churchill Downs' Grade I Clark Handicap.
In 2009, Blame used his victory in the Clark as the launching pad to a Breeders' Cup Classic-winning and championship campaign the following year.
Twelve months ago, Wise Dan — the recent Breeders' Cup Mile winner and favorite for 2012 Horse of the Year honors — gave a preview of his dominating form when he became a Grade I winner for the first time in the 11⁄8-mile Clark.
This year, the Kellyn Gorder-trained Bourbon Courage fits the profile of what the Clark winner has looked like in recent seasons — a late- developing runner with an abundance of upside still to be fully unearthed.
Should the 3-year-old son of Lion Heart overtake the nine rivals who will be in his midst Friday evening, it would hardly be a stretch to start making some grand predictions on his potential for 2013.
Despite coming at the tail end of the season, the $400,000-added Clark Handicap has again gathered an impressive assemblage of contenders. The field that will go to post in the signature race of Churchill's fall meet includes three Grade I winners.
In what is expected to be his 20th and final career start before entering stud at Darby Dan, multiple Grade I winner Shackleford was deemed the 120-pound highweight for the race and will leave from post No. 3 under Jesus Castanon.
While Shackleford, the 2011 Preakness Stakes winner, is aiming for one last surge of glory in a career that has seen him earn more than $2.8 million, Bourbon Courage is among those trying to throw down the gauntlet as the new guard for the year ahead.
Unraced as a juvenile due in part to overall immaturity, Bourbon Courage has become the proverbial "big horse" in Gorder's growing operation with his 5-length victory in the Grade II, $500,000 Super Derby on Sept. 8 and runner-up effort to the recently injured Neck 'n Neck in the Grade II Indiana Derby on Oct. 6.
"That was one of the factors in our decision not to go to the Breeders' Cup this year is we just didn't want to squeeze the lemon completely dry," said Gorder, who worked as the farm trainer at WinStar Farm before going out on his own. "We feel like he is improving with every race. Any time you believe in your horse and they go out there and kind of validate it, it's a great feeling. (The Super Derby) was a career high for me for sure, it was pretty special."
While it wasn't a win, Bourbon Courage's second-place finish in the Grade II, 11⁄8-mile West Virginia Derby on Aug. 4 could go down as the tipping point of his career.
In his fifth career start and first try beyond a mile, the bay colt came surging at the finish and fell only a half-length short of winner Macho Macho.
Couple that with the growing strength Bourbon Courage displayed while finishing his morning workouts and Gorder went from thinking he could have a pretty good miler to hashing out a broader future with the colt's co-owners, Bourbon Lane Stable and Wayne Lynn.
"His first start he showed brilliant speed and ran a huge number but then he came from off the pace in his second start and I liked what I saw there, that dimension to him," Gorder said. "At first I thought, well, maybe he can be a really good one-turn miler, but every time I'd breeze him, he'd breeze fast but he'd get to that second turn and his gallop-outs would be as impressive or more impressive than his work. That's when we thought we could maybe do the two-turn thing."
The complexion of the Clark changed Tuesday morning when trainer Ian Wilkes confirmed that multiple graded stakes winner Neck 'n Neck — who was expected to be among the favorites — would undergo surgery Wednesday after suffering a fractured sesamoid in his left front leg following a 5-furlong breeze at Churchill on Sunday.
With Shackleford and fellow Grade I winners Pool Play and Take Charge Indy among those remaining in the field, Gorder is still banking on getting a viable read for what his horse could have in store for him months from now.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.