Willis Horton's Will Take Charge notched his first victory of the season in the $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II) April 12 at Oaklawn Park, surviving multiple claims of foul and a lengthy inquiry (VIDEO).
The 3-year-old champion of 2013 raced behind the honest early pace of :23.47, :47.68, and 1:11.63 set by Right to Vote and Razorback Handicap (gr. III) winner and 3-1 second choice Golden Lad through the first six furlongs of the 1 1/8 mile test. He then launched his challenge on the outside as they turned for home, first brushing with Golden Lad, ridden by Gary Stevens, then drifting in near the eighth pole while getting a mile in 1:36.87.
Through the final furlong, heavily favored Will Take Charge received strong right-handed urging from Saez while battling with Revolutionary, with Mike Smith aboard, until drawing clear by three-quarters of a length.
Saez had to argue against claims from both Stevens and Mike after Smith and WinStar Farm's Revolutionary swung out to finish second.
"At the half-mile pole, I had a lot of horse and he wanted to run," Saez said. "I let him go comfortably, just the way he wanted to. When I came into the stretch, this horse gave me what he had and he was comfortable. He didn't want to change leads, that's why he went in a little bit. He came into the stretch and he was lugging in a little bit, but I straightened up pretty well and I didn't put him in any type of danger. I give a lot of credit to Wayne Lukas. This horse felt wonderful. He had a lot of power and strength."
Smith said he thought the issue was an even call.
"My horse ran really great," he said. "He (Will Take Charge) came over a little bit. I had to wait. I would have liked to see what the outcome was (otherwise) because I only got beat (three-quarters of a length), and two jumps past the wire I was in front. It was a 50-50 call and I understand that. It was a judgment call and it just didn't go my way."
Golden Lad wound up next-to-last following the incident. But the results stood, securing Will Take Charge's third stakes score at Oaklawn for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Final time was 1:49.55 on a fast track.
Last year the flashy chestnut son of Unbridled's Song finished first in the Smarty Jones Stakes and won the Rebel (gr. II) en route to wins in the Travers Stakes (gr. I), Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II), and Clark Handicap (gr. I). Those victories cinched his championship title when coupled with a runner-up finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) by a nose.
Now owned in partnership with Three Chimneys, Will Take Charge improved his record to seven wins and five seconds from 18 starts, good for earnings of $3,665,148. Bred in Kentucky by Eaton out of the multiple grade I winner Take Charge Lady, by Dehere, he was a $425,000 Keeneland September yearling sale purchase in 2011 when consigned by Hill 'n' Dale Sales Agency.
"I didn't see that much of a problem," Horton said. "Of course the stewards took their time about making it come true, and they did. I feel good, I feel better than I did before the race. I've got a little life in me now. I'm sure proud of what just happened. Really, the other horse was coming out as he was drifting in. There was a brush there, but it didn't amount to anything."
At 2-5, Will Take Charge returned $2.80, $2.20, and $2.10. Revolutionary paid $4 and $3.20, while third-place finisher Carve brought $4.20. Prayer for Relief, Golden Lad, and pacesetter Right to Vote completed the order of finish. Moreno scratched.
"It was close," WinStar general manager Elliott Walden said of the stewards' decision. "I think he (Mike Smith) had to check for a split second...It was worth looking at. Will Take Charge is a great horse and our horse ran really well."