Of all the horses trained by D. Wayne Lukas, a who’s who list of thoroughbreds that includes four winners of the Kentucky Derby, he has never had one like Will Take Charge.
Then again, no one else has, either.
When the Hall of Fame trainer sends out Will Take Charge in Sunday’s $500,000 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park, he will be saddling the first horse to capture the Eclipse Award as the nation’s champion 3-year-old despite failing to hit the board — finishing third or better — in all three legs of the Triple Crown.
No wonder Lukas said Will Take Charge has given him so much personal gratification, calling the turnaround by the rangy chestnut colt “the most satisfying situation I’ve had in the last four or five years.”
Will Take Charge is the 9-5 program favorite to win the important 1 1/8-mile stakes for older horses even though he will be required to carry 123 pounds, anywhere from 4 to 11 pounds more than any of his 10 expected rivals.
With success in horse racing comes the burden of added weight.
But Lukas is not complaining, not after Will Take Charge got his act together late on last year’s racing calendar to win divisional honors.
After the horse flopped in the Triple Crown series, “they pretty much gave this horse up for dead,” Lukas said. “But we finished up strong.”
Will Take Charge finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby, seventh in the Preakness and 10th in the Belmont. But, afterward, he won a pair of graded stakes for 3-year-olds, including the Travers at Saratoga, and lost the Breeders’ Cup Classic to Mucho Macho Man by a nose.
Lukas said the colt would have turned in a better showing in both the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic had he not encountered severe traffic that slowed his patented late run, perhaps costing him victories in both.
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“In my eyes, we really believed we would have been first or second in the Kentucky Derby, but he got shut down twice,” Lukas said. “And when you see that aerial view, it’s pretty obvious he was really making a monster move.”
Lukas said the two weeks between the Derby and Preakness wasn’t enough time for the horse to get it out of his system.
“I think it affected him mentally,” Lukas said. “I think he was going around in the Preakness wondering ‘Who’s coming next? Who’s going to blindside me next time?’ It’s like one of those wide receivers who gets blindsided. The next time he goes over the middle, he’s not so sure he wants to be there.”
Still, when all was said and done in 2013, no other 3-year-old — or at least none of the three different winners of the Triple Crown races — could boast such a résumé. Will Take Charge won $3 million in purse earnings last year.
“The Triple Crown group had trouble putting together any consistency,” Lukas said. “We kept waking up to a different scenario every time we ran one [of the three signature races].”
Orb won the Derby but never won another race.
Oxbow, also trained by Lukas, won the Preakness. He, too, did not win again.
Palace Malice managed to follow up his Belmont victory with another in the Jim Dandy Stakes. But that was it.
Will Take Charge took off, and he’s still going.
Lukas, 78, has outlined an ambitious schedule for the star of his 38-horse stable, which he headquarters during the winter at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. After the Donn, he hopes to head to California for the Santa Anita Handicap. Lukas said Will Take Charge might race once every month until summer, gear back for a few months, and rev up again for another attempt at the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“All these horses dictate their own pace,” Lukas said. “They’ll tell you when they’re ready and when they’re not. People have opinions. Horses have the facts.”