The big appearance at Churchill Downs for Grade I winner Constitution was supposed to come this past May. It was supposed to be his chance at smacking history in the face, to put an end to the trend that says a lack of 2-year-old form is something that can't be overcome in the first leg of the Triple Crown.
The list Constitution ultimately ended up on was the one of talented runners who had would-be starts in the Kentucky Derby shelved due to injury. While it won't make up for the what-might-have-been thoughts that rattle in his connections' minds, the son of Tapit is getting his chance at a Grade I outing at the Louisville track this Friday as part of the field of nine that were entered for the $500,000, 11⁄8-miles Clark Handicap.
Sixteen days after WinStar Farm and Twin Creeks Racing's Constitution captured the Grade I Florida Derby on March 29 to remain unbeaten in three starts at that point, trainer Todd Pletcher discovered a hairline fracture in the colt's front right cannon bone, a blow the six-time Eclipse Award winner termed "one of the biggest disappointments of my career."
As much as it burned to sideline a horse who had gone from maiden winner in January to potential Kentucky Derby favorite in under three months, the ongoing strength of this year's 3-year-old class — particularly horses like Belmont Stakes hero Tonalist and Grade I winner Wicked Strong whom Constitution had previously beaten — fueled hope that he would pick up where he left off once healed.
The comeback race didn't go quite so smoothly. In his first outing since his Florida Derby triumph, Constitution suffered his first career loss when he finished fourth to fellow Clark entrant Easter Gift in a 11⁄16-miles allowance race at Belmont Park on Oct. 12.
Much as they did when the colt suffered his injury, his connections absorbed the initial sting of the moment and then saw signs of a brighter future ahead.
"Anytime you run the first time off the layoff there is a bit of a risk," WinStar Farm president Elliott Walden said of Constitution's most recent start. "I don't think it helped that he stumbled at the gate and got kind of teed up when he jumped up and had horses on either sides of him going down the backside.
"We were very disappointed immediately after the race but in hindsight when you look back on it, we feel like he's moved forward, he's trained extremely well. And (that race) did what we wanted it to do, it got him fit. Two days after the race I felt a whole lot better about it than I did immediately after."
Putting Constitution back into top level company off that comeback outing may seem like tough waters, but the 3-year-old actually stands as the only Grade I winner in a Clark field that also features multiple graded winner Departing, the tepid 3-to-1 pick on the morning line, hard-knocking Prayer for Relief and Grade II Fayette Stakes winner Pick of the Litter.
Sharing the 7-to-2 second choice line in the Clark along with Constitution is another sophomore coming back from a denied Kentucky Derby bid. Grade II Rebel Stakes winner Hoppertunity, who was scratched from the Derby two days before the race with an injured left front foot, returned to the races in a seven-furlong allowance test at Santa Anita Park Oct. 29, finishing a fast-closing second.
"He likes this track. He trained well over it," trainer Bob Baffert said of Hoppertunity. "He's ready."
Hoppertunity has shown he can rate just about anywhere he is asked and come with a strong finish. Though Constitution won the Florida Derby from just off the pace, he scored his prior allowance win in front-running fashion and could find himself alone on the lead in a Clark field that, on paper, is absent of much early speed.
"Look, you take what comes in this game. We didn't get to make the Derby, but if he were to win a Grade I this weekend, we'd be extremely pleased," Walden said. "It was a disappointment (missing the Derby), but if he comes back and has a great 4-year-old year, sometimes things work out for the right reasons."
Fall City upset
Frivolous grabbed the lead at the head of the stretch and turned back late challenges by 4-5 favorite Don't Tell Sophia, Molly Morgan and Flashy American to spring a 19-1 upset in the $222,600, Grade II Falls City Handicap — the traditional Thanksgiving Day feature at Churchill Downs.
Frivolous, trained by owner G. Watts Humphrey Jr.'s daughter Vicki Oliver, ran 11⁄8 miles on a "fast" main track in 1:51.24 with jockey Jon Court aboard.
In doing so, the 4-year-old homebred collected her first stakes win and a $133,872 first prize that pushed her career earnings to $333,498 from a record of 3-3-3 in 17 starts.
Frivolous, an Empire Maker filly out of the Belong to Me mare Sixty Rocketts, raced in the clear just behind pacesetter Teen Pauline, who led the field of eight fillies and mares through ordinary fractions of :25.00, :49.11 and 1:13.47 before folding on the final turn.
Frivolous shot to the front at the top of the stretch and never relented to win by a half-length.
"At the head of the stretch, she wanted to go," Court said. "I called on her to put a little cushion between me and the field. I knew Don't Tell Sophia would come flying at the end so I wanted to get out there where I was in a comfortable spot and keep my lane and hopefully fend her off, which she proved to do."
Frivolous paid $40.80, $14.20 and $6.80.