LOUISVILLE — Chestnut legs determinedly churned the way they have all during one of the great second-half bloomings in recent seasons, but never as impressively as when next to one of the nation's leading older horses in the Churchill Downs stretch Friday evening.
Twenty-seven days earlier, Will Take Charge's limbs brought him within a nose of victory in the country's richest race. In Friday's Grade I, $550,700 Clark Handicap, the eleventh start of his sophomore campaign, they defined the son of Unbridled's Song as the likely champion of his division.
It doesn't quite make up for his narrow loss in the Breeders' Cup Classic earlier this month. Still, Hall of Fame Trainer D. Wayne Lukas flashed a satisfied smile as he watched Will Take Charge wear down multiple Grade I winner Game On Dude to nip that one by a head in the 11⁄8-mile race.
While more than one of his peers have already been retired to the breeding shed, Willis Horton's Will Take Charge has awed his connections with the way he has gone from being unplaced in all three Triple Crown races to a virtual lock to earn the Eclipse Award for champion 3-year-old male.
The progression that has allowed the splashy chestnut to win the Grade I Travers, win the Grade II Pennsylvania Derby and bring his white nose within an inch of Mucho Macho Man in the Classic peaked during his surge beneath the Twin Spires. After rolling up alongside Jaguar Paw off the final turn, jockey Luis Saez went to the left-handed whip on Will Take Charge with Game On Dude about two lengths clear in the stretch and got a slow-burn response, catching the seven-time Grade I winner with a steady outside kick.
"I thought this was maybe his best race of the year even though the Breeders' Cup was sensational," said Lukas, who stands to have his first Eclipse Award winner since Folklore in 2005. "But on this particular day going an eighth of a mile shorter, I think he showed his versatility pretty good today.
"He's gotten the idea now. He's a classy horse and he's gotten the idea of getting up and he seems to know where the wire is. The last four strides you could see ... they were long, those strides."
Even had Will Take Charge gotten his blaze face down first in the Classic, Lukas said he and Horton might still have led the colt against the eight other challengers in the Clark.
Back in May, Will Take Charge was a much less handy version of himself. Though he was making what appeared to be a winning move in the Kentucky Derby, he lost all momentum when he ran up on a tiring Verrazano and ended up eighth.
Once the Triple Crown was in the books, Lukas took the blinkers off the colt and saw him begin to mature. Following a second-place effort in the Jim Dandy, Will Take Charge edged Moreno by a nose in the Travers and has been able to build upon his form where the grind took others down.
"I'll go to my grave believing we could have won the Kentucky Derby," Lukas said. "After that set him back a little bit, it didn't play very good for the Preakness and the Belmont, but then we had a little time get him right again."
Game On Dude likely lost his Horse of the Year aspirations when he finished ninth as the favorite in the Classic. Still the 6-year-old Awesome Again gelding put in a bang-up effort in the Clark, sitting just off Our Double Play through a half in :47.29 before taking command coming off the far turn.
"He had to work at it that first half a little, but turning for home I really thought that it was ours," said Bob Baffert, trainer of Game On Dude. "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."
Will Take Charge, who rated not far off the leaders in fourth, hit the wire in 1:49.39 over a fast track with even-money favorite Game On Dude two lengths ahead of Easter Gift in third.
With end of the year honors now seemingly moot, Horton must make the call on whether to bring Will Take Charge back for a 4-year-old campaign or bend to the stud farms blowing up his phone.
"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'm 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.
"This is a lifelong dream. This is what I've been waiting on and I've finally got it."