If Will Take Charge hadn't secured an Eclipse Award as the nation's top 3-year-old already, his determined head victory over multiple grade I winner Game On Dude in the $550,700 Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (gr. I) under the lights Nov. 29 at Churchill Downs certainly wrapped it up (VIDEO).
A heart-breaking loser by a nose in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) Nov. 3, Will Take Charge would not be denied this time. He overcame 6-5 choice Game On Dude in the final couple of strides with a well-timed ride by Luis Saez.
Game On Dude, who took the lead from pacesetter Our Double Play rounding the final turn, was a tough-luck second after turning in a huge effort in the Clark, with Easter Gift staying on for third. The final time for the 1 1/8-mile test was 1:49.39 on a fast track.
The Clark win caps a big second half of the year for Will Take Charge, a strapping son of Unbridled's Song trained by D. Wayne Lukas for owner Willis D. Horton. The chestnut colt was bred in Kentucky by Eaton out of the multiple grade I winner Take Charge Lady.
Lukas won the Clark for the second time, the first coming in 2000 with the champion filly Surfside.
Since Lukas took blinkers off his charge this summer, Will Take Charge has scored victories in the Travers Stakes (gr. I) and Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) and was second in the Jim Dandy (gr. II) and BC Classic. In his most recent start Nov. 3 at Santa Anita Park, Will Take Charge rallied from sixth on the turn for home to just miss to Mucho Macho Man in perhaps the closest finish in the 30-year history of the Classic.
"I thought we'd need every yard," the Hall of Fame conditioner told HRTV. "I've got great respect for Game On Dude and (trainer) Bob Baffert. We' ve gone head to head quite a few times. It's what's racing is all about."
Will Take Charge, off at odds of 2-1, paid $6.80, $3, and $2.60. Game On Dude returned $3.40 and $2.60 and completed an $18.60 exacta. Easter Gift paid $5.20 to show.
Game On Dude, looking to rebound from a disappointing effort in the BC Classic as the favorite, had to contend with a rail post in the Clark. Breaking a bit flatly for jockey Mike Smith, he was unable to get his customary front-running position and raced in third early behind Our Double Play and 90-1 Jaguar Paw before Smith was able to angle him off the inside to stalk the leader.
Our Double Play held the advantage by about one length through an opening quarter mile fraction of :23.80 as Game On Dude moved up between horses to get second. Game On Dude cut the advantage to about half a length as they completed the half mile in :47.29, and six furlongs in 1:11.14. Game On Dude challenged in earnest at the three-eighths pole, was in front leaving the bend, and took control in the lane.
Will Take Charge, never far behind while stalking from fourth toward the outside in the field of nine, was making steady progress while under urging from Saez through the lane. Game On Dude still led by about two lengths mid-stretch. But the long-striding Will Take Charge, under left-handed encouragement, proved to be too much as the two stalwarts approached the wire.
Lukas said keeping Will Take Charge a little closer to the pace than usual in the Clark was part of the plan.
"The way the track was playing today—it wasn't as glib and as bouncy as it's been before—I thought making a closing run was going to be more difficult than when we have our normal track here with the weather and everything," the Hall of Fame trainer said. "I thought maybe it was his best race of the year, frankly, even though the Breeders' Cup (Classic) was sensational. On this particular surface going an eighth of a mile shorter, I think he showed his versatility pretty good today."
Saez, who won his first Clark, said he followed Game On Dude all the way.
"When we came to the three-eighths (pole) I saw he moved and he had a lot of horse," he said in reference to Smith. "I had too much horse so when I asked him, my horse was very intense and gave me everything."
He said he wasn't sure Will Take Charge could catch Game On Dude until his charge finally changed leads.
"The stretch is very long here and that helped. Thank God he won."
It was two lengths back to Easter Gift, ridden by Joel Rosario, in third. Bourbon Courage took fourth, followed by Jaguar Paw, Finnegans Wake , Our Double Play, Golden Ticket , and Prayer for Relief .
Will Take Charge, a $425,000 Keeneland September yearling buy in 2011, boosted his career earnings to $3,055,148 with his sixth lifetime win in 15 starts. He has raced 11 times in 2013, winning five, including three of his past four. The Rebel Stakes (gr. II) winner in March was of little use in the Triple Crown, finishing eighth in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, seventh in the Preakness Stakes, and 10th in the Belmont Stakes (all gr. I) before finding his best form at Saratoga.
"He's gotten the idea now," Lukas said. "He's a classy horse and he's gotten the idea of getting up. He seems to know where the wire is. The last four strides you could see he really (did). I don't know what (the strides) measured but they were long."
Horton said after the race that he plans to make a decision soon on whether to bring Will Take Charge back to run as a 4-year-old.
The winner carried 123 pounds in the Clark, three fewer than the 6-year-old Game On Dude. The star of Baffert's barn had won five consecutive graded stakes, including the Santa Anita Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup, and the Pacific Classic (all gr. I) and was the front-runner for Horse of the Year honors before his failure in the BC Classic.
"The plan was going great 'til the last jump," said Baffert by phone. "I thought at the eighth pole he was home free, but that stretch is so long, you know? But he ran his race and he showed up. We just got beat."
Baffert said he expected to return Game On Dude to training next year.
"We'll just do like we did last year. We'll just freshen him up and try to run him in California. As long as he's healthy and showing us that he hasn't lost a step, he'll be running."