At the beginning of 2013—heck, halfway through the season—few expected Will Take Charge to emerge as the best of his generation. What a difference six months can make.
With his 2014 debut in the $500,000 Donn Handicap (gr. I) at Gulfstream Park Feb. 9, the sky's the limit for the champion son of Unbridled's Song and multiple grade I winner Take Charge Lady. Last season, in addition to emerging from the Triple Crown trail unscathed, he strung together victories in the Smarty Jones Stakes, the Rebel (gr. II), the Travers (gr. I), Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II), and Clark Handicap (gr. I), with a runner-up finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) by a nose.
Willis Horton and Three Chimneys' newly turned 4-year-old arrived in South Florida Feb. 4 after a 20-plus hour van ride from Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas' winter base of Oaklawn Park. He had been training strongly in Arkansas with a Jan. 26 six-furlong move from the gate (1:14 4/5) and a Feb. 2 half-mile in :49 4/5, and took a spin around the Gulfstream oval the morning of Feb. 6 to get a feel for the track where he will make his first start since a Nov. 30 victory in the Clark over top handicap contender Game On Dude.
"He's been doing surprisingly well," assistant trainer John Sica remarked. "I drove him here myself, so I would know. He's easy-going and nothing really fazes him; he's got such a good mind. He jogged a little and galloped a mile and three-eighths. It seemed like he got over the track well, and the exercise rider said he felt good."
Will Take Charge will be on his way to becoming a handicap star if he aces this test as the 123-pound highweight in a field of 11. A win in the 1 1/8-mile event would set him up for a planned run in the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I), and from there his veteran connections could doubtless craft another award-winning campaign.
"I think probably at this time of the year they're not going to load up too much on any of the horses," Lukas said. "I'm not a guy that gets too carried away about the weight. I think he might be a bit sharper because he's had this little break. I think he could lay a little closer. I'm familiar with some of the horses in here, but we'll run our race regardless. He handles everything well."
With regular rider Luis Saez in the irons from post 2 in the Donn, Will Take Charge comes up against WinStar Farm's grade II winnerRevolutionary, sneaky good Lea, speedster River Seven, and hard-knocking Bourbon Courage.
Revolutionary, trained by Todd Pletcher, won the Withers Stakes (gr. III) and Louisiana Derby (gr. II) in extremely game fashion, then was third in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and fifth in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). The impeccably-bred son of War Pass out of the grade I-winning A.P. Indy mare Runup the Colors returned from the sidelines Jan. 11 with a solid victory in a one-mile allowance event at Gulfstream. Javier Castellano rides 4-year-old Revolutionary from the 3 hole; he carries 119 pounds.
Lea, a 5-year-old by First Samurai, moved from the barn of Al Stall Jr. to Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott and rewarded Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider with a commanding victory in the one-mile Hal's Hope Stakes (gr. III) at Gulfstream Jan. 11. No specific surface specialist, Lea skipped around from dirt—third in the 2012 Hawthorne Derby (gr. III)—to turf, where he won the Commonwealth Turf Stakes (gr. IIIT). He even made a run on synthetics.
The powerful contender was particularly impressive closing late in the Firecracker Handicap (gr. IIT) on the lawn at Churchill Downs last June, getting within two lengths of Wise Dan, who was well on his way to an unprecedented second sweep of Horse of the Year, older male, and turf male honors. Lea was third to that rival and King Kreesa in the Fourstardave Handicap (gr. IIT) at Saratoga Race Course, then switched to dirt to run fourth in the Forego (gr. I) before a fifth in the Hagyard Fayette Stakes (gr. II) on Polytrack at Keeneland in his final start for Stall. Joel Rosario gets the mount from post 8.
Tucci Stables' River Seven is also a Commonwealth Turf winner, having taken last November's edition, and has been a success on dirt and a synthetic surface. He transferred his form Dec. 22 with a record-setting performance in the Harlan's Holiday Stakes, sizzling 1 1/16 miles in 1:41.73 while beating multiple graded stakes winner Csaba by four lengths.
Trainer Nick Gonzalez opted to freshen up the 4-year-old son of Johannesburg before sending him to his grade I debut.
"We were making a plan, and 46 or 47 days seemed like an eternity," Gonzalez explained. "You just want everything to go smooth and you don't want any bumps in the road, but fortunately we've had a good month and a half. Because he'd had such a long year, I thought it might be best to space his races out. Going in a grade I and taking that step up, I wanted to have him as fresh as can be. Fortunately, today is entry day, and everything has gone right."
River Seven tuned up for the Donn with a five-furlong move in 1:00.30 at Gulfstream Feb. 2. Joe Rocco Jr., who piloted the gelding in the Harlan's Holiday, was in the irons for that breeze and will be aboard in the Donn from post 5.
"I was really happy with the way he went last time—we didn't ask him to do a whole lot," Gonzalez said. "He's a really smart horse and he works himself. He trains himself and I have very little to do with it. He's a pretty easy horse to ride and to rate. He's had three different riders in his last three stakes races and it's not like I have to stand there for 10 minutes in the paddock explaining how to ride him. He's simple."
Gonzalez expects River Seven will work out his usual handy trip in the Donn.
"He's got enough speed to get himself in a good position, whether he's inside or outside," Gonzalez remarked. "I'm not really worried about field size or post position--that's not really a concern for me. I just want to get him to the race the way he is right now."
Neck 'n Neck, A. Stevens Miles Jr.'s homebred Indiana Derby (gr. II) winner who was last seen running third in the Hal's Hope for trainer Ian Wilkes, and Darley's Romansh, who romped in the Nov. 2 Discovery Handicap (gr. III) for trainer Tom Albertrani, are also among those with graded victories.
They are joined by John Oxley's Uncaptured, fourth in the Hal's Hope last time out for trainer Mark Casse, and Bourbon Lane Stable's Bourbon Courage, the hard-charging runner who seeks his first win since the Super Derby (gr. II) of 2012. Bourbon Courage was third for trainer Kellyn Gorder in the Harlan's Holiday behind Revolutionary, and fourth in the Clark won by Will Take Charge.
Rounding out the field are Rose Family Stable's Joshua's Comprise, runner-up 14 lengths behind Mucho Macho Man in the Jan. 18 Florida Sunshine Millions Stakes, Silverton Hill's Viramundo, and Miroslava Dorochenko's Macho Bull.
The Donn will be televised via the Jockey Club Tour on FOX, on FOX Sports 1, which begins at 5 p.m. EST.
$500,000 Donn Handicap (gr. I, Race 12, 6:01 p.m. EST) 4YOs & Up, 1 1/8 miles (dirt)
PP, Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Uncaptured, M.Mena, 116, M Casse
2. Will Take Charge, L. Saez, 123, D W Lukas
3. Revolutionary, J. Castellano, 119, T A Pletcher
4. Neck 'n Neck, J. Leparoux, 116, I Wilkes
5. River Seven, J. Rocco Jr., 116, N Gonzalez
6. Romansh, J. Velazquez, 116, T A Albertrani
7. Viramundo, P. Lopez, 114, M D Wolfson
8. Lea, J. Rosario, 117, W I Mott
9. Bourbon Courage, J. Lezcano, 115, K Gorder
10. Macho Bull, M. Kappushev, 112, G Dorochenko
11. Joshua's Comprise, F. Maysonnett, 114, B R Rose