LOUISVILLE — The Triple Crown is often viewed as the defining five-week bootcamp for Thoroughbred racing's top 3-year-olds. And had one judged Will Take Charge solely off his performance during that span, much scoffing would have been heard had it been suggested that the son of Unbridled's Song would ultimately end up in the driver's seat for divisional honors.
The way the leggy chestnut got his mind and 17-hand frame together the second half of the year is a reminder that rushing to judgment is often futile. On the eve of facing multiple Grade I winner Game On Dude and seven others in Friday's Grade I $500,000 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs, Willis Horton's colt is now in a spot where he can only enhance what many believe will be a championship campaign.
Not since Tiznow in 2000 has the Eclipse Award for champion 3-year-old male gone to a horse who didn't win at least one of the classics. Despite not hitting the board in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont Stakes, Will Take Charge has emerged from a parity-laden sophomore class with his white-blazed face in front thanks to victories in the Grade I Travers, Grade II Pennsylvania Derby and a nose defeat to Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
The way Will Take Charge swallowed up ground in the final furlong of the Classic was both validating and a gut punch for his Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas — who has been touting the colt as one who would flourish with maturity since the day he broke his maiden at Keeneland last October.
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Had he not been carried way wide by a tiring Palace Malice around the final turn of the Classic, the thumbnail of a edge Mucho Macho Man had at the line could have easily swung in favor of Will Take Charge's pink-hued nose.
"You're standing there and ...20-30 people say you won it and 20-30 people say 'no I think you're second'," Lukas said. "Then they flashed the camera on Mucho Macho Man as he was galloping out and I thought that was premature because it was damn near a dead heat.
"When they hit the wire I thought he was second. Then when they played it back right away I thought he won it. Then when they played it a third time I thought we were second. But to run down those horses in the stretch like he did after getting bumped and pushed out was significant."
Kentucky Derby winner Orb never won another race after the first Saturday in May. Preakness Stakes hero Oxbow suffered a career-ending injury following the Grade I Haskell and Belmont winner Palace Malice ended his campaign with three straight defeats.
Will Take Charge, by contrast, has shown a hickory-tough constitution that seemingly thrives on work. Out of the multiple Grade I-winning mare Take Charge Lady, Will Take Charge will be making his 11th start this year alone in the 11⁄8-miles Clark, having opened his season with a victory in the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn on January 21.
"He's not only holding his form, I think he's moving forward," Lukas said after working the colt five furlongs in 1:01 at Churchill last Friday. "I feel like the last 2-3 weeks have been every bit as good as the prior 2-3 weeks leading into the Breeders' Cup so I feel real comfortable where he is at.
"It's a funny year for that (3-year-old) division. I think the whole entire body of work is probably where everyone has to go rather than one individual performance."
Lukas said wheeling back in the Clark was based more on Will Take Charge's form than trying to lock up 3-year-old honors, adding "I think he's already sealed it."
Game On Dude's ninth place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic was his third straight loss in that race but his first defeat in six starts this season. The 6-year-old gelding could still swing some Eclipse Award ballots for older male his way with a Clark victory and should be able to get his customary spot on the lead breaking from the rail.
Bourbon Courage, third in last year's Clark, most recently ran second in a Churchill Downs allowance race on October 31 — his first outing after being sidelined for six months with an ankle injury.
"I know there are two monsters in there, but we'll see what happens," said trainer Dale Romans, who won last year's Clark with Shackleford and will saddle longshot Finnegans Wake on Friday.
Grade I clark handicap
At Churchill Downs
When: 5:05 p.m. Friday