Willis D. Horton’s Will Take Charge, beaten a nose by Mucho Macho Man in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (Grade I) on Nov. 2, launched a furious late rally under jockey Luis Saez to catch favored Game On Dude in the final jump to win the 139th running of the $550,700, Grade I Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare by a head in a “Black Friday” championship battle at Churchill Downs.
Trained by the ageless Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, Will Take Charge most likely secured the honor of Thoroughbred racing’s champion 3-year-old with his victory over Game On Dude and seven other rivals. But Bob Baffert, the Hall of Fame trainer who sent Game On Dude from Southern California to Kentucky in an effort to put his star back in the conversation for racing’s coveted Eclipse Award for “Horse of the Year”, believes the late-developing Will Take Charge deserves more.
“He’s got to be considered seriously for Horse of the Year, because that was pretty impressive,” Baffert said. “The Dude, he ran his race. He brought his ‘A’ game today, and Will Take Charge still got us. So that’s pretty impressive.”
The 78-year-old Lukas hoped that, at the very least, his rising star had wrapped up 3-year-old championship honors.
“If I’m reading the headlines right, Game On Dude was in contention for Horse of the Year,” Lukas said. “If that’s the case, we just beat a damn nice horse. And we did beat a nice horse today. We beat a damn good horse.”
The Clark Handicap victory by Will Take Charge in the showdown between two of American racing’s brightest stars improved his career record to 15-6-3-0 and boosted his career earnings to $3,055,148. Most of that success has come this year for the colt who started his campaign in January, was well-beaten in the Kentucky Derby and all three races of the Triple Crown, but came to life in the second half of 2013 with victories in the Grade I Travers at Saratoga and the Grade II Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing prior to his runs in the Breeders’ Cup and the Clark Handicap. His 2013 record stands at 11-5-2-0 with earnings of $2,960,977 following Saturday’s dramatic win.
“I was standing with my grandson Brady and he started hollering ‘He’s coming! He’s coming!’ but like I said to Willis I think we were going to need every yard,” Lukas said. “He’s a classy horse and he’s gotten the idea of getting up. He seems to know where the wire is. The last four strides you could see he really … I don’t know what (the strides) measured but they were long.”
Will Take Charge covered the 1 1/8-mile distance of the Clark Handicap over a fast track in 1:49.39. He paid $6.80, $3 and $2.60 as the 5-2 second betting choice in the Clark. Game On Dude, who suffered only his second defeat in a seven-race 2013 campaign that included three Grade I stakes victories, paid $3.40 and $2.60 for his runner-up effort under jockey Mike Smith. Easter Gift, who rallied to finish two lengths back of Game On Dude in third under jockey Joel Rosario, returned $5.20 to show.
Game On Dude does his best running on or near the lead and seemed to have a tactical advantage on Will Take Charge heading into the Clark Handicap, and Smith got the former out of the starting gate quickly. But Game On Dude was confronted early by 14-1 longshot Our Double Play, who rushed past Game On Dude and led the field through early fractions of :23.80 for the quarter, :47.29 for the half-mile and six furlongs in 1:11.14. The favorite was a clear second down the backstretch, while Saez and Will Take Charge tracked the leaders in fourth. Smith moved on Our Double Play and grabbed the lead mid-way around the far turn while Will Take Charge waited in fourth. Smith gunned Game On Dude to a clear lead in upper stretch while Saez and Will Take Charge launched a five-wide bid, but appeared to struggle in their effort to gain ground on the leader. But Will Take Charge quickened with a sixteenth of a mile to go, caught Game On Dude in the final strides and put his head in front for the victory in the race’s final jump.
Easter Gift held third by 1 ¾ lengths over the late-running Bourbon Courage, who trailed by nearly 15 lengths midway through the race but rallied to be beaten fewer than three lengths in fourth. He was followed by Jaguar Paw, Finnegans Wake, Our Double Play, Golden Ticket and Prayer for Relief.
The Clark Handicap victory was the second for Lukas, who also won the race in 2000 when he saddled the 3-year-old filly Surfside to defeat older males. In doing so, she wrapped-up honors as that year’s champion 3-year-old filly. Will Take Charge’s win was the first Clark Handicap victory for the 21-year-old Saez and Horton, the colt’s 81-year-old owner.
While championship talk dominated conversation after the heart-pounding victory by Will Take Charge, the question of a possible racing future for Lukas’ rising star was unanswered. Negotiations are underway on a potential stallion deal for the Clark winner, and Horton hopes that any deal that is struck would allow his colt to continue to compete next year.
“I made a decision this week that next week was going to be the end of it – I can’t sleep at night with this deal going on,” Horton said. “I just want it over with. I either going to sell him or run him next year. I hope I could keep part of him and get to run him next year. That’s my plan.”
Baffert indicated that the 6-year-old Game On Dude would return to competition in 2014. Following his defeat in the Clark Handicap, his career record stands at 29-15-6-1 with earnings of $5,707,893. Of that total, $2,575,735 was earned this year as he compiled a record of 7-5-1-0 following a Clark Handicap performance that offered redemption for a ninth-place finish as the favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but ended a head short of victory in his dramatic final race of the year.
CLARK HANDICAP QUOTES
WILLIS HORTON, owner of WILL TAKE CHARGE (winner): “There was no question about who won. It’s a lifelong dream. This is what I’ve been waiting on and I finally got it so I’m real tickled.”
Q: Does this win make it a hard decision to race in 2014 or retire? “Naturally it makes it harder. But I made a decision this week that next week was going to be the end of it – I can’t sleep at night with this deal going on. I just want it over with. I either going to sell him or run him next year. I hope I could keep part of him and get to run him next year. That’s my plan.”
D. WAYNE LUKAS, trainer of WILL TAKE CHARGE (winner): “We watched it from the fourth floor (of the Clubhouse). Just from the way Luis (Saez) was riding I felt we won it.
“The way the track was playing today – it wasn’t as glib and as bouncy as it’s been before – I thought making a closing run was going to be more difficult than when we have our normal track here with the weather and everything. I thought maybe it was his best race of the year, frankly, even though the Breeders’ Cup (Classic) was sensational. On this particular surface going an eighth of a mile shorter I think he showed his versatility pretty good today.”
Q: At the eighth pole, did you think you’d catch Game On Dude? “I thought we would. I was standing with my grandson Brady and he started hollering ‘He’s coming! He’s coming!’ but like I said to Willis I think we were going to need every yard. He’s gotten the idea now. He’s a classy horse and he’s gotten the idea of getting up. He seems to know where the wire is. The last four strides you could see he really … I don’t know what (the strides) measured but they were long.”
Q: What about next year? “Well, that’ll be Mr. Horton’s decision and we’ve got some interest in the horse as you’d certainly guess. But I’m sure that will all shake out. He’ll have that decision to make and it’s a good one to have to make.
“You know, one of the things on the decision to run, it works both ways. We’re standing here on the glow of a win but we could have got beat today and that maybe would have made it more difficult for the (Eclipse Award) voters and made it more difficult for a (breeding) syndication at some place down the road. That was a pretty ballsy move. We stepped right up here and got it done.”
Q: Before the race you thought the Eclipse Award was already a done deal … “I don’t trust you people. [Group of media laughs]. I like to take the argument out of it!”
Q: You clinched a championship with the filly Surfside with a Clark win in 2000 … “If you look back in the history books that made Surfside a champion. She was probably not going to be champion until she won it here. It made her a champion so I’m hoping history repeats itself. We’ve done all we had to do today.”
Q: If you had gotten up in the Breeders’ Cup Classic would you have run here today? “I think so. As well as he did … that’s easy to say standing here today and everything … but I think the last (29) days since the Breeders’ Cup, this horse has really done well and thrived. Willis, as game as he is, I’m not so sure we wouldn’t have led him over here anyhow.
Q: If he races in 2014 do you think the $10 million Dubai World Cup in March could be a target? “He ran very, very well on the synthetic track over at Keeneland and that’s a lot of money and a lot of prestige. But that’s down the road. A lot of discussion I’m sure will go into that. We’re going to look at all of those: the Santa Anita Handicap, the Donn, the Oaklawn Handicap, the Gold Cup … we’ll look at ’em all.
Q: It’s rare this day and age to have 11 starts as a 3-year-old and keep getting this good. What does it say about his overall constitution? “A damn good horse, a good trainer and a good owner. (Lukas smile and media laughs]
“(As a 2-year-old) he was a big, rangy horse that was still trying to find himself. We did the right thing. We had him pointed to the Kentucky Derby and I’ll go to my grave believing that we could have won the Kentucky Derby. After that, it set him back a little – that little trip in the Derby didn’t equate very good to the Preakness and the Belmont, which came up bang-bang. But then we had a little time to get him right again. I’d like to run the Kentucky Derby over again. With all respect to Shug (McGaughey) and Orb and Stuart (Janney) and Dinny (Phipps) but I really think we had a great shot at it that day.”
Q: Is it satisfying to possibly win the 3-year-old championship on the track? “If I’m reading the headlines right, Game On Dude was in contention for Horse of the Year. And it that’s the case, we just beat a damn nice horse. And we did beat a nice horse today. We beat a damn good horse.”
LUIS SAEZ, jockey of WILL TAKE CHARGE (winner): “The horse broke so well. Game On Dude was inside of me … I followed him all of the way because I knew I had to beat him. When we came to the three-eighths (pole) I saw he moved and he had a lot of horse. I had too much horse so when I asked him, my horse was very intense and gave me everything.”
Q: Did you think you could catch him at the eighth pole? “No. When we came into the stretch my horse had to change his leads so that’s what I tried to do. But when he changed (leads) he was flying and I knew I was going to beat him.”
Q: You seemed awfully happy … “Yes. The stretch is very long here and that helped. Thank God he won.”
Q: You’ve had a great year with this horse … “I rode him the first time at Saratoga and that day I watched all the replays (of his previous races) to see how he runs so I’d know what to do. He won that day impressively. He’s a good horse, a very good horse.”
BOB BAFFERT, trainer of GAME ON DUDE (runner-up) – via telephone: “The plan was going great ‘til the last jump. I thought at the eighth pole he was home free, but that stretch is so long, you know? But he ran his race and he showed up. We just got beat.
“It looked like that other horse (Will Take Charge) he was scrubbin’ on him and I thought, man, we’ve got him, because I was watching him the whole way. When he (Game On Dude) settled on that first turn when that speed horse went after him – I knew that eight horse (Our Double Play) was going to cause some problems for us and wouldn’t give us that easy lead that we wanted. So he had to work at it that first half a little, but turning for home I really thought that it was ours. But that other horse, he just found a way to get up there and get us. If you’re a racing fan, it was a great race to watch.
“I couldn’t have done anything different. The horse was training great. It was just a good horse race and we just got beat. Will Take Charge – he’s just getting really good, that horse. Wow! He just gets rolling there. That horse, he’s got to be considered seriously for Horse of the Year, because that was pretty impressive. The Dude, he ran his race. He brought his ‘A’ game today, and Will Take Charge still got us. So that’s pretty impressive.”
Q: Will Game On Dude get a little rest now and kick back-in next year? “We’ll just do like we did last year. We’ll just freshen him up and try to run him in California. As long as he’s healthy and showing him that he hasn’t lost a step, he’ll be running.”
JIM BARNES, assistant trainer to BOB BAFFERT, trainer of GAME ON DUDE (runner-up): “We showed up. We got beat by a good horse. Wayne’s horse is good right now and he’s showing it.”
Q: At the head of the stretch it looked like there was no way Will Take Charge was going to catch him … “For a moment I thought we were OK, but this damned stretch at Churchill will get you. It goes on forever.”
MIKE SMITH, jockey on GAME ON DUDE (runner-up): “If I could do anything over, just because I’m a perfectionist and I get on myself harder than anyone else, I might have waited a little bit more (before going to the lead on far turn). But in doing that he (Will Take Charge) might have got me easier. I’m not as big as he is. That horse has a big, big stride. At some point I thought I’d want to try and put a little distance between us, because we’ve all seen Game On Dude do that and destroy a field. He’ll make that middle move and really put some distance between people and they can’t ever catch him. So I thought I would try that a little bit, and afterwards I thought, dang it, I should have waited a little more, but I don’t know if I was going to beat him.”
Q: Was the plan to lay behind Our Double Play if he went for the lead? “I was hoping they would decide not to, some wishful thinking. They could have gone to the lead going 21-and-change. I knew they would probably go, which was fine. I actually liked the way it turned out, because I probably would have got pushed pretty fast (if Game On Dude had gotten the lead).
Q: At the top of the stretch you had to feel great … “When I kicked on, I thought I got it. I think I do. I put some distance between us, so I’d ride him and open on up. But maybe I should have waited a little more.”
CHAD BROWN, trainer of EASTER GIFT (third) – via telephone from New York: “It was a difficult race, but I thought my horse ran great. He was just third best, but I’m proud of the way he ran.”
Q: Does this give you more hope for further down the road with him? “We’re starting to figure out exactly what he wants to do. It looks like a mile-and-an-eighth on the dirt suits him well. He was just out-finished by two better horses today, but he ran a close third and I’m proud of him. So we’ll build off of this and hopefully we’ll be back at Churchill in some point. He seems to like the track there.”
JOEL ROSARIO, jockey on EASTER GIFT (third): “When I was turning for home he kind of lugged in a little bit, and as I was riding him there, but he kind of stayed there a little bit. But if you keep him busy he will give it to you and if he sees a horse in front of him, he’ll go get it. But the best two horses were in front of us. I thought I had a little chance turning for home and it looked like in the last sixteenth that maybe I might get there, but he just didn’t have enough.”
KELLYN GORDER, trainer of BOURBON COURAGE (fourth): “He was definitely farther back than I expected him to be. Corey (Lanerie) just said he thought they were going pretty quick up there and he was comfortable where he was at, but just had a little too much left to do. There were real good horses in front of him. He ran a bang-up race and just got beat today.”
COREY LANERIE, jockey on BOURBON COURAGE (fourth): “I didn’t expect to be that far back. They seemed to be going a lot faster than they were. But he always shows up and he ran hard. The best two horses in the country finished one-two, so it was good effort by my colt.”