Race Day seeks swan song win in Grade I Clark Handicap

Jockey John Velazquez stands up on Race Day after the horse won the $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., Saturday, April 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
Jockey John Velazquez stands up on Race Day after the horse won the $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., Saturday, April 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston) Associated Press

The top wishlist item for every owner who ventures into the Thoroughbred industry is the same no matter what level they dive in at. Winning races is a given objective. But to own a horse that captures a Grade I test? That’s the kind of goal some spend ample fortunes and emotional energy trying to attain.

Two years after buying his first horse, Matthew Schera can realistically see the above scenario happening for him this Friday. His colt Race Day heads into the Grade I, $500,000 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs unbeaten at the 1 1/8-miles distance, including his most recent graded stakes win. He has proven form over the track and over the sloppy conditions Mother Nature says will likely show up.

The 4-year-old son of Tapit has every chance at exiting the evening with his first career Grade I win. Which is why it stings Schera to know, regardless, there will be no encore.

While the lineup for the Clark was in flux until Thursday afternoon, one certainty is that the nine-furlong contest will mark the final career start for Race Day before he retires to stand stud at Spendthrift Farm for 2016. Deemed the 7-to-2 co-third choice on the morning line in a field that also features Travers Stakes winner Keen Ice and defending race hero Hoppertunity, Race Day is looking to give himself a walk-off homerun type of ending in his 12th career start and become the first Grade I winner Schera has owned.

“You know, I wish we could run him next year,” said Schera, a Connecticut-based hedge fund trader who currently owns about 70 horses. “When I sold the breeding rights, I thought it was the right thing to do at the right time. You have to take some money off the table in this game to pay the bills and keep the business going.

“It’s bittersweet in that it’s awful tough that I know we’ve only got one shot at it. This is the only Grade I shot for him.”

The irony for Race Day is he has actually made a habit out of running - and winning - on some pretty lofty stages this season.

When Schera purchased the gray colt for $285,000 out of WinStar Farm’s racing-age stock consignment at the 2014 Keeneland November Breeding Stock sale, Race Day was only days removed from winning a one-mile allowance race at Churchill Downs. Though the initial plan was to try him on turf, Race Day won his first start for Schera and trainer Todd Pletcher by 8 1/2 lengths over the main track at Gulfstream Park last December.

The breakout potential suggested in those outings materialized earlier this season when Race Day became Schera’s first graded stakes winner in taking the Grade III Razorback Handicap in March and Grade II Oaklawn Handicap in April. Both those efforts, however, took place beneath a long shadow as he ran on the same card that saw champion and eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah capture the Grade II Rebel and Grade I Arkansas Derby, respectively.

“It’s crazy - and it may not be relevant - but when he ran at Oaklawn those two races, he ran on the same day as American Pharoah and the second time (Oaklawn Handicap) they were a race apart and I think we ran a half second faster,” Schera said. “The same thing in the other stakes (Razorback) when it was 1 1/16-miles and the track was getting sloppy. So he’s run some really fast races this year.”

Following a pair of off-the-board outings in the Grade III Salvator Mile and Grade I Forego, Race Day was back in his sweet spot at 1 1/8-miles in the Grade II Fayette Stakes at Keeneland on the undercard of Breeders’ Cup Friday, winning by three-quarters of a length over Hoppertunity, the 7-to-2 co-third choice out of post six this Friday.

With Grade I winner Dortmund bypassing the Clark in favor of a start in the Native Diver at Del Mar this weekend, Race Day could be primed to use his high cruising speed most effectively out of post nine. He will have Effinex to his inside and while that one ran a bang-up race last out, trainer Jimmy Jerkens expressed concern over the son of Mineshaft having to endure some potentially tight quarters.

“He gets a little riled up if he’s in between horses and gets too excited,” Jerkens said. “That can make him hard to handle, which might happen. It’s going to be a cavalry charge into the first turn probably. At least he’s outside so hopefully some will go to the front and he can sit in behind them.”

Donegal Racing’s Keen Ice has the benefit of running out of his Churchill Downs-based stall for trainer Dale Romans. That’s one of the few things the son of Curlin has in his favor coming off a fourth-place run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic as he will have to break from post No. 1 at a distance a bit short for his style.

“He would have to be much the best to win this race because there are some very good horses in here,” said Donegal Racing president Jerry Crawford, who considered scratching Keen Ice but confirmed Thursday he would remain in the Clark. “It’s a lot to expect of him coming off the Classic.”

Notes: The multiple graded stakes winning mare Frivolous, who was cross-entered in Thursday’s Grade II Falls City Handicap and the Clark, was scratched from a start in the former and retired after coming back from a gallop with tendon soreness, trainer Vicki Oliver said Thursday afternoon. The 5-year-old daughter of Empire Maker will join owner G. Watts Humphrey’s Kentucky broodmare band.

Alicia Wincze Hughes: 859-231-1676, @horseracinghl