The $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II) April 12 at Oaklawn Park has been on Willis Horton's mind for Will Take Charge ever since his blaze-faced chestnut sewed up last year's Eclipse Award as outstanding 3-year-old male.
"It's been on my radar all the time," the Arkansas native said April 9, the day Will Take Charge drew post 2 against six others for Saturday's Oaklawn 'Cap. "It's here in my home state and it's a big race, too, and that's the reason. He's got a lot of fans here."
A strapping son of Unbridled's Song, Will Take Charge is a two-time winner at Oaklawn, where he'll run as the 123-pound hghweight under regular rider Luis Saez. He took the Smarty Jones Stakes and the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) early last season before going on to bigger and better races for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, acing the Travers (gr. I), Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II), and Clark Handicap (gr. I) along with a runner-up finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) by a nose.
In the Breeders' Cup Classic, Will Take Charge ran much better than a familiar foe—Southern Equine Stables' Moreno, who was right there in the Travers and Pennsylvania Derby, missing the former by a front-running nose and fighting gamely to preserve the place in the latter. The Ghostzapper gelding fizzled in the Breeders' Cup, however, fading to 10th after vying for the lead early on. Turns out, he had his reasons.
"Actually, in the race itself, he fractured a splint bone," trainer Eric Guillot said. "He had five months off and spent three out of training. He's been training great now, and here in California there was really nowhere for him to run. I feel like he's a good, quality horse, he tries as hard in a graded stakes race as he would in a '2 other than,' so we might as well go and see how he comes back as a 4-year-old at this point."
While Moreno was just getting back into training, Will Take Charge got his season started with two strong seconds in the Feb. 9 Donn Handicap (gr. I) at Gulfstream Park and the March 8 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) at Santa Anita Park.
In the 1 1/8-mile Donn, Will Take Charge ran his typical closing style from sixth over a speed-favoring track to miss by 1 1/2 lengths behind a track record 1:46.86 run by upsetter Lea. In the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita Handicap he was closer to the pace, but could not run down Game On Dude and had to settle for second by 1 3/4 lengths as the hard-knocking gelding finished the distance in 1:58.17.
"The track at Santa Anita has such a short stretch, and if it had a longer stretch like Oaklawn or Churchill, he probably would have won the race," Horton said. "Down in Miami, we just ran into a buzzsaw down there. Lea set a new track record and all that; we were right there with him, but I'd say we just got a little unlucky."
This year, Horton said, Will Take Charge should be a steady figure for fans to enjoy in the handicap division. His next target, if all goes according to plan, is the June 14 Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs, where he won the Clark. He should then head up to Saratoga Race Course for the summer handicaps.
"It seems like all your good horses, they'll just run through their 3-year-old year and then, if they're a good horse, they'll go to stud," Horton remarked. "I wanted to put him out there (on the track) this year. As far as consistency goes, I don't think there's a horse in the country as good as he is, because he's going to bring his race every time and he's going to give it his all. He should be a hard campaigner this year."
Last year Moreno appeared on the 3-year-old stakes scene after taking 10 starts to break his maiden, then jumped up with his Dwyer win going 1 1/16 miles at Belmont Park in July. He then ran third behind Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Palace Malice and Will Take Charge in the Jim Dandy (gr. II) at Saratoga.
"He really has the pedigree to be better at 4 than 3, and he had 13 races last year which was a long campaign," Guillot said. "Will Take Charge came back and flattered him the rest of the year. I'm hoping to run a big race and come to the summer with a fresh horse for the big money in New York, then give him a breather and come back for the Breeders' Cup again."
Another of interest in the Oaklawn 'Cap is WinStar Farm's Revolutionary , who won the 2013 Louisiana Derby (gr. I) and ran third in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and fifth in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) before going to the sidelines for trainer Todd Pletcher. The War Pass runner returned Jan. 11 with a good allowance victory, but faltered to seventh last time out in the Donn when caught six wide on the far turn.
Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith will ride Revolutionary in place of Javier Castellano, who will be in Lexington to ride the Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I) card at Keeneland. Revolutionary breaks from the rail and will carry 117 pounds.
Pletcher will also send out E. Paul Robsham Stables' Golden Lad, who galloped to a 6 3/4-length score in the March 15 Razorback Handicap (gr. III) in his stakes debut. The 4-year-old son of Medaglia d'Oro has now won four in a row and would figure to be forwardly placed. Hall of Famer Gary Stevens has the mount on Golden Lad, assigned 116.
Completing the field are Zayat Stables' multiple graded stakes winner Prayer for Relief, a 6-year-old son of Jump Start formerly trained by Steve Asmussen and making his first start for trainer Dale Romans off a sixth in the Feb. 22 Mineshaft Handicap (gr. III); B J D Thoroughbreds' 5-year-old Political Force gelding Right to Vote, winner of the Feb. 15 Essex Handicap two starts back and fourth in the Razorback in his most recent outing; and Michael Langford's allowance winner Carve, a 4-year-old First Samurai gelding trained by Brad Cox.
$600,000 Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II, Race 10, approximate post time 5:27 p.m. CDT), 4YOs & Up, 1 1/8 miles (dirt)
PP, Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Revolutionary, M. Smith, 117, T A Pletcher
2. Will Take Charge, L. Saez, 123, D W Lukas
3. Right to Vote, R. Santana, Jr., 113, R Moquett
4. Carve, J. Castanon, 113, B Cox
5. Moreno, J. Rosario, 118, E Guillot
6. Golden Lad, G. Stevens, 116, T A Pletcher
7. Prayer For Relief, N. Arroyo, Jr., 116, D Romans