Will Take Charge confirmed his championship-caliber class in winning the Clark Handicap on Nov. 29 at Churchill Downs. (Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire)
The Breeders’ Cup is Thoroughbred racing’s traditional proving ground for champions.
This year, though, it took a race later in the month to quite decisively settle one title, a turn of events that provided the sport and its fans with a nice present well in advance of Santa’s arrival.
On the day after Thanksgiving, racing fans were treated to another feast as the $500,000 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs brought together Breeders’ Cup Classic disappointment Game On Dude and the race’s runner-up, Will Take Charge, in an unusually star-studded race for late November.
In the end, the two Breeders’ Cup runners put on a dazzling show along the lines of the Classic itself as Will Take Charge wore down Game On Dude in the final yards to win by a head and, in the process, secure a division crown in an entirely satisfying and admirable manner.
And it just as easily could not have happened.
In the aftermath of his narrow loss by a nose to Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Will Take Charge seemed destined to be named the year’s champion 3-year-old. It wasn’t a universal belief – Kentucky Derby winner Orb still had some supporters – but in all likelihood if Will Take Charge had called it a year after the Breeders’ Cup, he probably would have been awarded the division’s Eclipse Award.
But at a time when inactivity could have been richly rewarded, trainer D. Wayne Lukas and owner Willis D. Horton opted for valor over discretion and raced their Travers Stakes winner in the Clark, which was anything but a slam dunk.
In 2012 and 2013, Game On Dude has been an exceptional runner – with the exception of those times he ran in a race with the words “Breeders’ Cup Classic” in it. His presence in the Clark – a race that could have provided him with vindication for a ninth-place finish as the 8-to-5 favorite in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic – made it a challenging test for Will Take Charge.
The 1 1/8-mile distance - a furlong shorter than the 1 ¼-mile BC Classic – surely suited Game On Dude, and a poor showing by Will Take Charge could have damaged his title hopes.
As it turned out, the Grade 1 Clark generated a memorable finish that reflected quite well on the two horses who were two lengths ahead of third-place finisher Easter Gift.
For Game On Dude, while his Horse of the Year hopes evaporated when he faded in the stretch at Santa Anita in the Classic, the Clark reaffirmed that he is a top-flight runner and not the weakling he was earlier in the month.
BOTH WILL TAKE CHARGE AND GAME ON DUDE DELIVERED IN CLARK
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
Will Take Charge, meanwhile, silenced whatever critics there were. The Clark gave him a second Grade 1 win and his record since late July reads a second in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy, a win in the Grade 1 Travers, a win in the $1 million Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby, a nose loss in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the year’s richest race in the U.S., and now a victory in the Grade 1 Clark.
Will Take Charge may have flopped in all three legs of the Triple Crown, with a seventh in the Preakness his best finish in the three races, but he ended the year like an undisputed champion.
He also capped it all in late November, not early November, taking a chance and meeting that challenge, which speaks well for the horse’s connections and underscores the characteristics that a champion possesses.
The Clark may not have been the Breeders’ Cup, but it ended up resembling one, which is something fans of the game surely should have been thankful for on a holiday designed for it.