There were so many roads RRR Racing’s dual graded stakes-winner Clapton could have travelled following his private purchase this summer with an eye towards the Group 1 Dubai World Cup in March at Meydan Racecourse.
The goal was never to reach Saturday’s Grade 1, $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park, but a series of strong performances – including a fourth-place finish in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup on September 1 at Saratoga Race Course and a last-out win in the Grade 2 Lukas Classic on September 30 at Churchill Downs – convinced New York-based trainer Chad Summers the 1 1/4-mile test is the right spot.
“Our plan was to go to the Dubai World Cup – that’s always been the plan. It’s just been a natural progression for him and we just let him take us here,” Summers said. “When we bought him, we ran him in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and let’s see what we can learn about him. He ran a sneaky good race that day as wide as he was turning for home into the slow fractions.”
The 4-year-old Brethren colt, campaigned through 22 starts by trainer Juan Alvarado for his breeder Arindel Farm, was a half-length winner of the Grade 3 Ghostzapper in April at Gulfstream Park. He was purchased privately by Sheikh Rashid Bin Humaid Al Nuaimi’s RRR Racing out of a runner-up effort in the Grade 2 Suburban in July at Belmont Park and subsequently joined up with Summers at the Spa.
Clapton chased moderate fractions in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and rallied seven-wide from the top of the lane to finish 2 1/4-lengths back of the victorious Bright Future, who nosed out Proxy – and he will face both those runners again on Saturday.
“We had the best closing half-mile that day and we got the best sheet number of anybody,” noted Summers.
Summers had a number of options to consider with Clapton following that effort, including the Grade 1 Awesome Again taken by frontrunning Slow Down Andy at Santa Anita and the Grade 2 Woodward at Belmont at the Big A, which was won by returning Classic contender Zandon.
He legged jockey Joel Rosario up on Clapton for a five-eighths breeze in 59.32 on September 15 over Big Sandy and was pleased with the veteran rider’s report.
“I love Joel Rosario and I trust him with my life,” said Summers of his affinity for the rider, who guided his New York-bred hero Mind Your Biscuits to consecutive scores in the 2017-18 Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen. “After the breeze, I asked him what he thought and he said, ‘1:01?’”
When Summers told Rosario the horse breezed a bullet, he received a wide-eyed response.
“He said, ‘That’s a serious horse,’” recalled Summers. “That’s what we wanted to hear. It was affirmation. My team does a great job and they were singing the horse’s praises, but to have Joel hop aboard and give us that feedback was important.”
After reviewing the three potential next starts – and lining up riders all three tracks – Summers landed on the nine-furlong Lukas Classic where he hoped a projected hot pace would set up well for the late-running Clapton.
With Cristian Torres up, Clapton tracked 10 lengths back in seventh as Five Star General and Grade 1-winner Americanrevolution dueled through a half-mile in 46.66 seconds. He advanced to sixth after three-quarters in a sharp 1:10.83 and continued to edge closer, traveling six-wide into the lane to be second behind Trademark at the stretch call. Clapton took aim at the leader and dueled gamely to the wire to prevail by a head with one last bid in a final time of 1:48.79.
“Not often in this game do things go according to plan, but the Lukas Classic unfolded literally how we dreamed that it would,” Summers said. “He ran to expectations and got up in a good running of the race.”
The winning effort again left Summers considering options for Clapton, including the Grade 2 Clark on November 24 at Churchill or overseas Group 1 bids in the Japan Cup on November 26 or the Maktoum Challenge in January at Meydan.
“His first day back to the track gave us those signs that he was doing really well and feeling himself,” Summers said. “He galloped strong on the bit and seemed to be enjoying himself.
“So, if he takes us there, he takes us there,” Summers recalled of his Breeders’ Cup aspirations. “It’s a $150,000 entry fee to run there and there’s other factors – including with an eye on Dubai.”
One of those factors included assessing the potential pace of the Classic in which 3-1 morning-line favorite Arabian Knight, the Grade 1 Pacific Classic winner, and gate-to-wire Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby-victor Saudi Crown are expected to battle for the lead.
Summers said he is hopeful others might join the fray heading into the first turn, including Grade 1 Whitney champ White Abarrio and Group 2 UAE Derby-winner Derma Sotogake, who is a son of his former charge NY-bred Mind Your Biscuits.
“I think we’ll see more speed from Derma Sotogake – his best race this year was the UAE Derby when he went gate to wire. In the Kentucky Derby [6th], I think he was a bit of a tired horse and we didn’t see his best effort. I would imagine he would be forwardly placed off the long layoff,” Summers said. “And White Abarrio won the Whitney in frontrunning fashion, so I would expect him, off the layoff, to be a little bit aggressive, too. There should be enough speed in there between those four that hopefully somebody doesn’t get loose.”
Clapton, who was on the outside looking in after pre-entries were announced, posted a half-mile breeze in 48.60 October 28 at Santa Anita with Antonio Fresu up, working outside an unplanned rival early and to the inside of a straggling horse near the wire.
“He put away the company early and that horse jogging next to the rail at the end of the breeze could have been a scary situation, but Antonio expertly maneuvered him around him,” Summers said. “Those things are going to happen in a race and going a mile and a quarter, we’ll probably have a horse or two stopping in front of us there, too.”
Clapton, who will exit post 7 under Tyler Gaffalione, said the work was enough to convince him the horse could have writers crafting “wonderful tonight” headlines on Saturday evening at Santa Anita.
“It’s what we wanted to see and he’s taken to the track well,” said Summers, who watched Clapton blow out down the lane Wednesday. “We didn’t need to see speed – we’re not going to win this race on speed, we’re going to win this race on tactics and stamina. He had a really good three-quarters, seven-eighths gallop out and he didn’t want to pull up. Everything is going in the right way.”