It would have been easy for the owners of Take Charge Indy to follow the path of least resistance last year, to put an end to his comeback from an ankle injury and start campaigning for what his regal bloodlines could do in the breeding shed.
What the dark bay colt nearly pulled off at Churchill Downs on Nov. 23 proved a convincing enough argument that more racing maturity could yield greater results once his stallion duties do begin. And if the effort he puts forth beneath the Twin Spires in Saturday's Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap mirrors the outing he had there on May 3, what could have been a decision ripe for second guessing will look like a call of brilliance.
Rare is the occasion in this commercial-dominated age of Thoroughbred racing where a Grade I-winning son of a legendary sire out of a multiple Grade I-winning mare gets his racing career extended once a bump in the road arises. Thus, when WinStar Farm purchased the breeding rights to Take Charge Indy last summer as he recovered from ankle surgery, shock would not have set in had a 4-year-old campaign never materialized for the 2012 Florida Derby winner.
In just his second start since finishing 19th in last year's Kentucky Derby — the race after which the ankle chips were discovered — Take Charge Indy came within a length of defeating older horses in last year's Grade I Clark Handicap, giving WinStar and original owners Chuck and Maribeth Sandford renewed confidence they could have a top handicap horse for 2013.
After hitting the board in both his season debut in the Grade I Donn Handicap and the Grade III Skip Away Stakes this winter, the son of A.P. Indy validated himself as a legit contender in the older horse ranks with a 6-length romp in the Grade II Alysheba Stakes at Churchill.
"They always left it open that he could race at 4 if he came back good and obviously he did come back good even though he didn't win," trainer Pat Byrne said. "I take my hat off to the horse because he comes off a big layoff and runs a good third at Keeneland then goes from there and runs a good second in the Clark. That good solid showing was enough confidence to WinStar to keep the horse in training and go from there.
"I always believed and Mr. and Mrs. Sandford believed that because of his pedigree he would be a serious 4-year-old. I see the physical improvement in him since the Alysheba and it's kind of scary."
Take Charge Indy is one of five Grade I winners expected to be among the six horses entered Wednesday for the 11⁄8-mile Stephen Foster — a tribute to the depth in the handicap ranks.
Toppling the likes of Breeders' Cup Classic winner Fort Larned and defending race victor Ron the Greek will require Take Charge Indy to be at his tactical best in harnessing his early speed. If he gets into his comfortable rhythm down the backside, though, Byrne is going to be ready to salute anyone trying to reel his charge in.
"If we get our trip, and we get beat by a better horse, I'll take my hat off to the winner," Byrne said. "I think his pedigree is finally catching up with him. He's put on weight and got stronger since the Alysheba and that's just his maturity and genetics kicking in. I can't wait for Saturday night."
Out of the multiple Grade I-winning mare Take Charge Lady, Take Charge Indy has been off the board only three times in his 12 career starts but not been worse than third since his return in the Grade II Fayette Stakes last October.
"I think he's just gone from strength to strength," Byrne said. "His races in Florida were very solid and ... when you get to the top rung, they might beat you today but you'll get them next time. I think there is a very stellar group of older handicap horses right now."
Stephen Foster Handicap
Post time: 9:39 p.m.
Where: Churchill Downs
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.