Will Take Charge, the three-year-old Travers Stakes (G1) winner and runner-up in this year's Breeders' Cup Classic (G1), just wrapped up his bid for year-end honors as 3-Year-Old Male Champion with a thrilling win in the $500,000 Clark Handicap (G1) at Churchill Downs. It was the first Clark Handicap win for jockey Luis Saez and owner Willis Horton and the first for trainer D. Wayne Lukas since Surfside won in 2000.
The D. Wayne Lukas trainee, Will Take Charge, sat comfortably in fourth while 14-1 Our Double Play took the field of nine up to the top of the stretch in the 1 1/8 mile route over the dirt. Biding his time in second, post-time favorite, Game On Dude, drew clear of Our Double Play and Jaguar Paw at the top of the stretch, just as Will Take Charge began to make his move. It appeared Bob Baffert’s Game On Dude was going to redeem himself from his ninth place Breeders’ Cup finish, but Will Take Charge powered down the lane with his long stride and nabbed Game On Dude at the wire, taking victory by a head in a photo finish.
“There was no question about who won,” said owner Willis Horton. “It’s a lifelong dream. This is what I’ve been waiting on and I finally got it so I’m real tickled.”
“When we came into the stretch my horse had to change his leads so that’s what I tried to do,” said jockey Luis Saez. “But when he changed (leads) he was flying and I knew I was going to beat him.”
Will Take Charge, who finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby (G1), seventh in the Preakness Stakes (G1), and tenth in the Belmont Stakes (G1), may have just needed some time to mature. Since beginning his summer campaign with a second place finish in the Jim Dandy Stakes (G1) July 27, he won the Travers Stakes (G1) by a nose over Moreno, won the Pennsylvania Derby (G2), finished second by a nose to Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), and now adds the Clark Handicap (G1) to his list of graded stakes victories.
“I thought maybe it was his best race of the year, frankly, even though the Breeders’ Cup (Classic) was sensational,” says Lukas. “On this particular surface, going an eighth of a mile shorter, I think he showed his versatility pretty good today.”
Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith was aboard Baffert’s Game On Dude. Although the trio has dominated the handicap division in the West Coast, they were unable to take their dominance to Churchill Downs and hold off Will Take Charge.
“At some point I thought I want to try and put a little distance between us, because we’ve all seen Game On Dude do that and destroy a field,” said Smith. “He’ll make that middle move and really put some distance between people and they can’t even catch him. So I thought I would try that a little bit, and afterwards I thought, dang it, I should have waited a little more, but I don’t know if I was going to beat him.
Although Baffert was unable to make the race, his assistant trainer, Jim Barnes, was in town and may have summed up the defeat best, “For a moment I thought we were okay, but this damned stretch at Churchill will get you. It goes on forever.”
Easter Gift, under jockey Joel Rosario finished two lengths behind Game On Dude in third.
“I thought I had a little chance turning for home and it looked like in the last sixteenth that maybe I might get there, but he just didn’t have enough.”
Third choice among the bettors, Bourbon Courage, finished fourth under Corey Lanerie.
“The best two horses in the country finished one-two, so it was a good effort by my colt.”
Will Take Charge returned $6.80, $3.00, and $2.60. Game On Dude paid $3.40 and $2.60 and completed the $2 exacta for $18.60. Easter Gift paid $5.20 and completed the $0.50 trifecta for $30.45 . Bourbon Courage completed the $0.10 superfecta for $17.90. The final time for the 1 1/8 mile race over the fast dirt was 1:49:39.
Photo: Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography