“It’s the chance of a lifetime in a lifetime a chance.” And it was a chance meeting at Churchill Downs that put owner Willis Horton in position to live the dream, an Eclipse Award as 2014 Horse of the Year.
“I met Wayne at Churchill Downs," Horton told Gulfstream officials earlier this week. “At the time, we hadn't been having any luck. We had just left the track when I made the suggestion that we go back to the track and the first good trainer we run into, we'll have him start training our horses.
“Wayne was going down the steps as we were coming up, and I collared him.”
Horton, a retired cattle rancher from Arkansas, has been in racing a long time and has had many trainers in a racing career that began with Quarter Horses and is now the owner of a defending divisional champion in search of bigger game. And now it’s up to Lukas to make the dream a reality.
To achieve the ultimate goal, you run in Grade 1 company and the Donn was the first meaningful G1 of the year. In a handicap that was run in track record time of 1:46.96, Will Take Charge was an on-rushing second to Gulfstream repeat winner Lea, finishing a length and a half behind but 9-1/4 lengths in front of longshot show finisher Viramundo.
All Will Take Charge did yesterday was lose a horse race, not his stature as one of the top handicap horses in the country. In the Donn, the 2013 three-year-old champion carried 123 pounds, giving the five-year-old Lea six pounds while enduring a much tougher journey.
“We got blocked for a bit and couldn’t get out, so we couldn’t move as quickly as we wanted to,” Lukas said post-race. “That’s just horse racing. We also didn’t have a race over the track, which turned out to be a disadvantage. [Lea] had to set a new track record to beat us, so that’s all you need to know. Kudos to the winner.”
The other disadvantage turned out to be his running style. According to Patrick Cummings, the business manager of Trakus and on hand to deal with any technical difficulties that could arise when a big-time network comes in to do a broadcast, only six horses in the 42 races run at the Donn distance at Gulfstream since Trakus technology was installed came from farther back than 4-1/2 lengths after the first half mile.
At that point, Will Take Charge was not that far back but in taking him off the rail for running room, he steadied his mount to shift him outside. With a half-mile remaining in the Donn, the champion was five lengths back, perhaps a bit more between calls. Lea raced outside and in the clear throughout; Will Take Charge rallied even wider.
“I saw when [Will Take Charge] broke free I knew he’d be running at us,” said winning trainer Bill Mott. “We were good enough to scoot away from him. It’s a long year and the big races are at the end of the year, and there’s a lot of good racing in between. Right now I’d love to point him for the Whitney at Saratoga.”
Mott was thinking of the nine furlong Grade 1 Saratoga, of course, but, like he said, there’s a lot of racing in between. Lea’s style would seem a natural for the Metropolitan Handicap on Belmont Stakes day, especially since he was so impressive winning the Hals Hope, a one-turn mile.
But don’t blame Mott for doing some dreaming of his own. Since Lea was transferred to his barn late last year, the Claiborne/Dilschneider bred and owned Lea is 2-for-2. “Whenever you have a horse with Bill Mott, you know they’re going to run well,” co-owner Dell Hancock said. “For him to run like that, it’s exciting.
“I Was Wrong at the Top of My Voice”—That quote, unfortunately, was mine as I approached the window to bet my money on Heart Stealer to upset Groupie Doll in the champ’s career finale, the Hurricane Bertie. The tack turned out to be wrong with a capital R.
It was one of the finest efforts of a 23 race career in which she won back-to-back Eclipse Sprint titles, 12 victories in all, and over $2.6 million in career earnings and now will begin a new career as a broodmare for new owner and breeder Mandy Pope, who purchased the mare for $3.1 million following her victory in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.
“I’m so happy for Mandy and for Groupie, going out a winner like this,” said William ‘Buff’ Bradley, the only trainer the mare has known, and whose family mated Bowman’s Band to Deputy Doll which begat Groupie Doll. “Mandy has put so much into it; she walked up with the horse; she’s been there with her all week.”
Perhaps the six year old saved her best for last; from the Official chart footnote:
“Groupie Doll, slow to gather stride, dropped out of striking distance in the opening stages, gathered momentum nearing the bend, shifted outside advancing on the leaders five deep on her own courage through the bend, was urged to wrest command in that path entering the upper stretch, drew well clear under firm urging and was taken in hand in the final sixteenth once the issue was decided.”
Groupie Doll was nearly eight lengths behind after the first quarter-mile: “I love her going out a winner. Seeing her on the backside, I was about sick to my stomach. I just thought, ‘Man, she got left at the gate,” Bradley said. “There’s too much to do.” He was right, after the half, her deficit was 9-1/2 lengths. “But when she made that move on the turn, she was just gone.”
And now the champ’s gone from the racetrack and is off to the breeding shed.
Thanks for the memories, mommy.
“I Didn’t Think He Could Fly That High”—Falling Sky came to George Weaver last summer at Saratoga. The trainer took his time getting acquainted, tinkered with him a bit, and when he was ready for a run, shipped the colt to Laurel for his first start since the Kentucky Derby, where the Sam F. Davis winner beaten off in the slop by Orb, 53 lengths behind the winner.
He just had a terrible trip down there so Weaver shipped him down to his South Florida training base at Palm Beach Downs and began getting him ready for a four-year-old campaign, entering him in a Gulfstream allowance race on January 11. “We didn’t want to run him a mile but that was the only race they had.”
And he couldn’t have been too thrilled to see the name of Revolutionary on the overnight. Falling Sky made a winning effort setting the pace throughout but was worn down late by the Louisiana Derby winner, who was making his first start since the Belmont Stakes. Weaver thought that it would be a good race to build on. He had no idea how good it might be.
“We thought in that race, internally, he ran a very, very good seven furlongs. We thought cutting him back to seven-eighths today that he would run a big race. It was an awesome race.”
I watched the race live from the viewing stand with HRI’s Tom Jicha and after they went an eighth of a mile, I said they were going slow. When 22.61 seconds was posted a furlong later, I said: “See, I told you.”
Like Weaver, I was unprepared by what would follow. The next quarter was run in 21.76, the following one in 23.49—that’s three-quarters in 1:07.86! If that weren’t enough, he closed the deal with a final eighth of 12.79. The final time of 1:20.65 is a new stakes record.
The plan is to keep him around one turn for the time being. Would Weaver consider a year-end goal of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint? “Sure.” Can’t blame the trainer for being optimistic given Saturday’s going-away, 5-1/2 length romp.