Owner Willis Horton has been hunkering down to avoid the arctic blast that is freezing much of the country, including his home state of Arkansas. But Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas is turning up the heat on Horton's champion runner Will Take Charge, sending the newly turned 4-year-old through final preparations for his 2014 debut.
Will Take Charge, who last year galloped to victory in the Smarty Jones Stakes, Rebel Stakes (gr. II), Travers Stakes (gr. I), Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II), and Clark Handicap (gr. I), with a nose loss in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) after running in all three Triple Crown races, worked a handy six furlongs from the gate at Oaklawn Park Jan. 26 in 1:14 4/5.
He remains on course for a start in the $500,000 Donn Handicap (gr. I) at Gulfstream Park Feb. 9, which was moved one day from its original scheduling—to Sunday instead of Saturday—in order to kick off the Jockey Club Tour on Fox television.
The Donn and the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (gr. IT) will anchor the series' inaugural broadcast from 5:00-6:30 p.m. EST on Fox Sports.
"Wayne says he's in the best shape he's ever been; he's just continually getting better," Horton reported of Will Take Charge. "We gave him a little time off after the Clark Handicap and then we've just been getting him back in shape, ready to run."
The chestnut son of Unbridled's Song and multiple grade I winner Take Charge Lady has posted a steady pattern of works since returning to the Oaklawn tab, including four in January. His most recent move was his first at six furlongs.
"I talked to Wayne, of course they changed the date of the Donn, so he's going to work him Sunday (Feb. 2) and ship him out on Monday (Feb. 3)," Horton said.
Although the connections previously spoke of making a trip to the March 29 Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) with Will Take Charge, Horton all but ruled out the $10 million event in recent conversation. Will Take Charge broke his maiden on Polytrack at Keeneland in October 2012, and would figure to handle the Tapeta surface at Meydan, .
"I really think we're going to wind up going to Santa Anita Park (for the grade I, $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap on March 8)," he said. "A lot of horses that go to Dubai, they don't come back in as good of shape as they left in. So more than likely—it's not set in stone yet, but more than likely—right now we're going to go to Santa Anita, and after that race probably come back to Oaklawn to run him in the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II)."
Bred in Kentucky by Eaton and purchased by Horton for $425,000 at the 2011 Keeneland September yearling sale, Will Take Charge is now owned in part by Three Chimneys. He will stand at the Kentucky operation upon retirement.
"So far, so good," Horton said of the partnership. "It's been real nice dealing with some super people."
Horton, 73, was the hit of the night at the Jan. 18 Eclipse Awards in South Florida, where he accepted the award for champion 3-year-old male for Will Take Charge's 2013 campaign. The colt's current record stands at 6-3-0 from 15 starts, with earnings of $3,055,148.
"You know, they say that a poor old country hick from the hillbillies of Arkansas can never accomplish anything. Well, ladies and gentlemen, we accomplished something," said the owner, who moments later ignored the shot clock before finally concluding his speech to vigorous applause.
Horton said he enjoyed the Eclipse Awards and his moment as the crowd favorite.
"Somebody had to put a little life into them; they were about to go to sleep!" he said.