Gulfstreamâ€™s grandest stage for older horses will kick off the â€śJockey Club Tour on Foxâ€ť with an abundance of star power. The marquee name is Will Take Charge, who might have been a nose away from Horse of the Yearâ€”the distance he fell short of catching Mucho Macho Man in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic.
But he is far from a free bingo square in the Donn, which concludes a pick 3, pick 4, pick 5 and Rainbow 6. He hasnâ€™t been out since running down Game on Dude in the Clark Handicap Thanksgiving weekend. Whatâ€™s more, the Donn is the first step on the long journey back to the Breedersâ€™ Cup. D Wayne Lukas obviously wants to win another Grade 1 but itâ€™s doubtful the screws are fully tightened.
The weights surely will not be an excuse. Will Take Charge got a kindly package of 123 pounds. In an understatement, Lukas said, â€śI think probably at this time of year, theyâ€™re not going to load up too much on any of these horses.â€ť The Coach didnâ€™t need the qualifier â€śat this time of year.â€ť Handicaps have become a joke as racing secretaries vie to get star horses to their track. Grade 1â€™s, which are supposed to identify the best of the breed, shouldnâ€™t be handicaps anyway.
Unlike Game on Dude, who launches his 2014 season Saturday in the San Antonio Stakes--another of those California cakewalks in which he has built his reputation beating nobodies--Will Take Charge will be challenged by a deep, talented field of 10 rivals.
Revolutionary, second high weight at 119, was arguably a better horse than Will Take Charge during the time both were in training last year. They met twice. Revolutionary was third in the Kentucky Derby. Will Take Charge finished eighth. Revolutionary was fifth in the Belmont. Will Take Charge ran tenth.
Revolutionary didnâ€™t get to prove conclusively that he was better because his connections put him away after the Belmont in order to have a top 4-year-old. He certainly looked that part in his Gulfstream return, which was more impressive than the half-length victory margin makes it look.
The Donn is far from a two-horse race. River Seven has done most of his racing in Canada but comes into Sundayâ€™s race on a three-race winning streak, including a turf stakes at Churchill and a track record performance in the Harlanâ€™s Holiday, his first experience on Gulfstreamâ€™s main track. In his only previous try on conventional dirt, he was a close second in the Prince of Wales, a leg of the Canadian Triple Crown.
Lea also might have better than a puncherâ€™s chance against the champ. Heâ€™s been on the verge of becoming a serious horse throughout his career, which has been spent mostly on grass. Last summer he was second and third to Wise Dan in graded stakes. Bill Mott took over his training this winter and put him on dirt in the Halâ€™s Hope. Lea responded with a runaway win.
The Hall of Fame trainer once took another horse, who was not firing his best shots on turf, which seemed to be the surface he was bred for, and tried him on dirt. Cigar became the best horse in the world. Itâ€™s foolhardy to suggest Lea is the second coming of Cigar but he could be a major player in the older horse ranks this year.
The Jockey Club Tour got an unexpected bonus when Groupie Dollâ€™s new owner, Mandy Pope, who bought her at auction for $3.1 million after the Breedersâ€™ Cup, decided she didnâ€™t want her new star mare to go out on an off-the-board finish in the Cigar Mile. So she was pointed to the Hurricane Bertie. Win or lose, Groupie Doll next goes to the breeding shed.
She might be a better bet against than Will Take Charge. After-thought races are never ideal situations. Moreover, her second Eclipse was awarded solely on the basis of a repeat victory in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Maybe this was the race her whole season was pointed toward, because she certainly wasnâ€™t the Groupie Doll of 2012 last year.
She opened her campaign hanging the length of the stretch to finish third against a couple of horses of moderate ability at Ellis Park. She redeemed herself somewhat with an encore win in the Presque Isle Masters but then ran third again in the TCA at Keeneland. She wound up the year fourth in the Cigar. She had some excuses, but donâ€™t they all?
Wildcat Lily and Jamaican Smoke are both Grade 1-placed. But the one to pay most heed to might be Heart Stealer, two-for-two since joining the Marty Wolfson barn, which is lethal in local stakes.
The Fox telecast (5-6:30 p.m.) has a third stakes, the Grade 1 Gulfstream Turf Handicap, which marks the return of Amiraâ€™s Prince. Four-for-four in the U.S., he hasnâ€™t been out since the Mervin Muniz at the Fair Grounds almost a year ago. But he is in the hands of Mott, whoâ€™s as good as it gets bringing quality horses back to the races off long layoffs.
The threats are Summer Front, who made the Fort Lauderdale last month his seventh career stakes win, and the current Shug, old Shug duo of Imagining and Boisterous. Six-year-old Imagining, in Shug McGaugheyâ€™s barn his entire career, will be gunning for his third straight win and first in a Grade 1. Boisterous, who became a millionaire under Shugâ€™s tutelage, was sold at Keeneland last fall to Gary Barber and makes his first start for Todd Pletcher.
The weekendâ€™s only 3-year-old race of note, the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis, goes Saturday at Santa Anita. Midnight Hawk will be an overwhelming favorite in a field of seven and, as Trevor Denman likes to say, looking for a danger, canâ€™t find one.
Everything out west is in a stagnant state until the status of Shared Belief is established.