LOUISVILLE — Shortly after entries were taken for Friday's Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs, trainer Scooter Dickey learned the $500,000 race had already yielded one victory for him over some diligent rivals.
"I got two dozen donuts coming because (trainers) Steve Asmussen and Wayne Lukas bet me each there wouldn't be 12 horses in it, and they wound up with 13," Dickey declared Wednesday.
For all their Hall of Fame credentials and litany of achievements, both Asmussen and Lukas should have known better than to underestimate the drawing power of this year's running of the marquee test.
Thanks to Drosselmeyer's upset win in the Breeders' Cup Classic under the Twin Spires on Nov. 5, the 137th Clark Handicap carries more than its usual weight, with a pair of Eclipse Awards on the line in the 11⁄8-mile race.
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Though he finished fifth in the $5 million Classic, Dickey's Flat Out could garner significant votes for champion older male and even Horse of the Year should he prevail in the Clark — which would mark his second Grade I win and third graded stakes triumph of the season.
Belmont Stakes hero Ruler On Ice could go from forgotten classic winner to the potential 3-year-old champion male should the quirky gelding build off his third-place Breeders' Cup Classic run and topple elders on Friday.
No one is going to lay down for those two as they attempt to grab championship glory as Wise Dan, Prayer for Relief, Mission Impazible and Demarcation are just a sampling of the graded stakes winners also in the Clark entry box.
"Really all 13 of them have a shot," said Paul McGee, trainer of Demarcation, who was disqualified to 11th in last year's Clark. "It will be interesting to see the odds board because every horse in there has a shot and you don't see that much in a 13-horse field. Usually you can throw this horse out and throw this horse out but you can't do that in the Clark."
As much as they share a common goal, Flat Out and Ruler On Ice couldn't be more polar opposites.
Where Flat Out is a model citizen, barely twitching an ear at any of his racetrack routines, it can be a battle at times for trainer Kelly Breen just to get Ruler On Ice out of his stall without issue.
Although the Roman Ruler gelding tests Breen's patience with his antics, the New Jersey-based trainer wishes the temperamental chestnut would get more recognition for his consistent runs.
Ruler On Ice hasn't won in four starts since his Belmont victory — his lone career stakes triumph — but he has hit the board in the Grade I Haskell, Grade II Pennsylvania Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic. Should he win Friday, he would join Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile winner Caleb's Posse as the only 3-year-old males this year to notch two Grade I victories.
"Let me tell you, every day is an adventure with him but ... we've learned to deal with it," Breen said. "I would think he doesn't (get the respect he deserves) but this horse has a special place in my heart."
Flat Out also carries a great deal of sentiment, having overcome chronic foot ailments that once sidelined him for more than a year. His victories in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup and Grade II Suburban Handicap this season marked the first graded stakes wins of his career and with a Clark win, Flat Out would have as many Grade I victories in 2011 as his Whitney Invitational conqueror Tizway.
The one thing Flat Out doesn't have, however, is a win at Churchill Downs as he is 0-for-3 over his home track including a sixth-place effort in the Stephen Foster.
"The first race he ran here was his maiden race and he had a bad trip ... and then the other two (Stephen Foster and Breeders' Cup), the track was kind of wet both times," Dickey said. "I was worried about the track (on Breeders' Cup day), I thought it had dried more. It wasn't muddy but it still wasn't fast, and he hadn't liked it in the Stephen Foster. I was hoping he would like it but it kind of turned out the same way."
Flat Out and Ruler On Ice may be chasing year-end hardware, but Morton Fink's Wise Dan is seeking to establish himself as a handicap force for 2012.
The 4-year-old gelding has won over all three surfaces, including a main-track allowance victory at Churchill last May, and proved he could handle 11⁄8 miles when he won the Grade II Fayette by 4 lengths at Keeneland on Oct. 29.
If he can relax off the leaders and stretch out successfully on the dirt, Wise Dan could also be able to avenge his older half brother Successful Dan, who finished first in last year's Clark but was disqualified to third for interference.
"I try to forget about last year," said trainer Charlie Lopresti, who conditions both siblings. "We want to find out what kind of handicap horse we have (with Wise Dan). If he can get 11⁄8-miles on the dirt like he did on the synthetic, then we got a pretty good handicap horse for next year."