Monday, December 02, 2013

Taking Charge of Destiny

I’ve spent the past few weeks railing against the racing schedule post-Breeders’ Cup. It appears to be a movement, ala Post Modernism. But if there was ever a weekend that justified racing after the Breeders’ Cup it was this past one. And it made one heck of an argument.

Up until Saturday Will Take Charge was likely on the short list for Champion Three-Year-Old. A loss would’ve made him a footnote in the race for an Eclipse. A win cemented it

Connections have little reason to run after the Breeders’ Cup, especially if the horses ran well. Will Take Charge ran 11 times in 2013 going all the way back to January 21 when he won the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn.

He finished sixth in the Southwest and, four weeks later, won the Rebel. His trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, did what in hindsight, won his colt an Eclipse: He rested WTC for seven weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby.

During that time, from Mar. 16 to May 4, many horses ran at least one more race. But even at the time, it didn’t look like a brilliant program. WTC ran in all the Triple Crown races finishing eighth, seventh and 10th in Louisville, Baltimore and New York. That rest appeared to have backfired.

But some horses need time to grow and the Triple Crown strengthened Will Take Charge. He’d never finish worse than second the rest of the way. Second to Palace Malice in the Jim Dandy. Second to Mucho Macho Man in the Classic. Won the Travers. Won the PA Derby. Won the Clark.

“A damn good horse … ” Lukas said after the race. “(As a 2-year-old) he was a big, rangy horse that was still trying to find himself. We did the right thing. We had him pointed to the Kentucky Derby and I’ll go to my grave believing that we could have won the Kentucky Derby. After that, it set him back a little – that little trip in the Derby didn’t equate very good to the Preakness and the Belmont, which came up bang-bang. But then we had a little time to get him right again. I’d like to run the Kentucky Derby over again. With all respect to Shug (McGaughey) and Orb and Stuart (Janney) and Dinny (Phipps) but I really think we had a great shot at it that day.”

As we’ve seen a horse doesn’t have to be the best to win the Derby, he just has to be good enough that day, not to mention lucky. See Orb, Super Saver and Mine That Bird. Nobody confuses any of these horses with elite three-year-olds. Sometimes a true champ wins the Derby, but more often than not champion three-year-old is awarded to the rolling boil, not a flash in the pan.

What made Will Take Charge’s run to champion three-year-old special is this: He never won a Triple Crown race. You’d have to go back to Tiznow in 2000 to find the last three-year-old to win the Eclipse without winning a Triple Crown race. On that list, there are only six Derby winners. Of those six Derby winners, five won the Derby and Preakness (I’ll Have Another, Big Brown, Smarty Jones, Funny Cide and War Emblem). Tiznow never ran in the Triple Crown at all.

Prior to Tiznow, there’s Charismatic, Silver charm, Real Quiet and Holy Bull, all horses who won at least one Triple Crown race. Skip Away and Tiznow mark the only two dating back 1996 that won the Eclipse without winning roses, susans, or carnations.

Will Take Charge—like Skip Away before him—had to shed the weight of having lost all three Triple Crown races (no small task given how heavy the voters lean on those classics).

It appears he has Champion Three-Year-Old locked up and he’s tied for second with Game On Dude for the second most wins in 2013—five. And WTC has beaten Game On Dude twice head-to-head. In the Horse of the Year running, only Wise Dan and Princess of Sylmar have more wins than Will Take Charge with six.

Were it not for racing after the Breeders’ Cup, Will Take Charge may have been empty-handed come Eclipse time. Thanks to his owner and his trainer, he may leave with two pieces of hardware.

They saw their destiny was in their hands and they ran with it. Boy, did they.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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