LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Three weeks after clinching a divisional championship at Del Mar with Forever Unbridled, the same connections were back in the spotlight Friday at Churchill Downs when John Velazquez guided Seeking the Soul to victory in the annual fall-meet showcase, the Grade 1 Clark Handicap.
"It's been a good month," said Dallas Stewart, who trains Seeking the Soul for owner-breeder Charles Fipke. "I'm so happy to win another Grade 1 for him."
The eventual top three finishers in the $500,000 Clark trailed their six opponents entering the backstretch of the 1 1/8-mile race. Seeking the Soul saved ground on both turns and found an opening near the eighth pole, where he swung out to overtake the front-running favorite, Diversify, en route to a half-length score over Good Samaritan. Hoppertunity was third, another length back.
It was the first stakes win in 17 overall starts for Seeking the Soul, who returned $17.80 as sixth choice after finishing in 1:48.88 over a fast track. He carried 116 pounds, seven fewer than the co-highweights, Hoppertunity and Diversify.
An objection by Florent Geroux, the rider of Hoppertunity, against the winner for alleged interference in deep stretch was disallowed. Seeking the Soul did drift outward somewhat in the final 100 yards, leaving Hoppertunity precious little room between horses, but the Churchill stewards ruled the incident did not affect the outcome.
The rapidly improving Seeking the Soul now becomes a viable prospect for the Jan. 27 Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park, along with his stablemate, Forever Unbridled, whose victory in the Nov. 3 Breeders' Cup Distaff at Del Mar makes her a shoo-in for the 2016 Eclipse Award for top older filly or mare and led Fipke to declare her a likely starter in the $16 million Pegasus.
Stewart has trained for years for Fipke and takes delight in whatever success in racing comes his way. Fipke, a diamond tycoon who lives in western Canada, was not on hand Friday to witness the 4-year-old son of Perfect Soul in his greatest performance to date.
"He arranged the mating of this colt," said Stewart. "His great-grandmother on his dam's side is Personal Ensign, and that's the kind of thing he really gets a kick out of. I'm tickled to win this for him."
Seeking the Soul had been tried periodically in stakes -- he was a distant 12th at 55-1 in the 2016 Belmont -- while gradually making his way through his allowance conditions. In his previous start, a third-level allowance on Oct. 21 at Keeneland, the colt gave signs of putting it all together when prevailing by nine lengths, earning a career-high 103 Beyer Speed Figure.
"He's really come around," said Stewart. "We've always thought he had this sort of ability and now he's finally showing it."
Beneath the Churchill lights and amid pleasant autumn weather, Diversify sped to the lead from his outside post under Irad Ortiz Jr., appearing to go comfortably when setting fractions of 23.34, 47.35, and 1:11.44. Unlike in his last race, however, which resulted in victory in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup, the New York-bred gelding was unable to carry his speed the distance, as the top three all surged past him in the final furlong.
After the top four, the order was The Player, Destin, Goats Town, and Mo Tom. Honorable Duty was eased in midstretch after losing his action in the final turn.
For Hoppertunity, the third-place finish completed a unique cycle from four straight tries in the Clark. He won in 2014, finished second in 2015, and was fourth last year.
The victory came on Velazquez's 46th birthday and marked his third in Clark history, following Magna Graduate (2005) and Wise Dan (2011). The record for most wins for a jockey in the Clark is four, held jointly by Isaac Murphy and Pat Day.
The $2 exacta (2-3) paid $86, the $1 trifecta (2-3-1) returned $230.50, and the 10-cent superfecta (2-3-1-9) was worth $84.25.
Hailstorm Slew wins Dream Supreme
One race earlier Friday, Hailstorm Slew ($27.80) got a perfect outside stalking trip under Jon Court in winning the $79,382 Dream Supreme for filly-mare sprinters. Ivy Bell rallied from last to finish second as the 8-5 favorite.
C.R. Trout is the breeder, owner, and trainer, of Hailstorm Slew, an Oklahoma-bred daughter of Munnings. The winner finished six furlongs in 1:09.56 for her seventh victory from 17 lifetime starts.