As racing heads into hibernation, of sorts, D. Wayne Lukas’ 2013 season proved that just a few days can make for a dynamite year.
He pointed that out himself after Oxbow won the Preakness, and the theme continued right on until Will Take Charge barely got past Game On Dude to win the Grade I Clark Handicap on Friday.
Heading into Saturday, the 78-year-old trainer, who still gets on the pony every morning to watch each workout set from his ever-smaller barn, had 24 wins all year and was hitting at a paltry 8.7 percent.
Many of them were home runs, though.
Besides the Preakness and Strong Mandate’s Grade I Hopeful win at Saratoga Race Course, Lukas’ season pretty much was carried by the chestnut son of Unbridled’s Song who all but clinched the 3-year-old male championship at Churchill Downs this weekend.
Years ago, it wasn’t unusual for Lukas to be ripped for over-running horses in the never-ending pursuit of Triple Crown glory.
Now, as his resources have dwindled significantly, Lukas pulled off an old-school campaign with Will Take Charge that was one for the ages. Well, one for the past several generations, anyway.
“I think we did more with less than maybe most of the guys,” Lukas told the Churchill Downs press office Saturday morning. “We had a lot of gaps in there between the big races. We didn’t have much in our barn to really say too much about.”
Will Take Charge was one of just two horses to run in all three Triple Crown races this year, but he took a roundabout route to a championship that actually happened in spite of his Triple Crown participation, and not because of it.
Remarkably, Will Take Charge, owned by 73-year-old Willis Horton, has raced 14 times since last October, making a start every month except April and October of this year (but with two starts in May and two in November).
If you throw out the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, Will Take Charge finished worse than second just once since last December, a sixth in the Southwest 10 months ago.
Among his victories was the controversial nose win over Moreno in the Travers at Saratoga.
A byproduct of the Clark win was several offers from breeding syndications to buy in, but the good news for fans is that, whatever Horton decides to do, he wants an agreement that will allow Will Take Charge to race in 2014. That would be a badly needed boost for a sport that all-too-often watches its stars retire early for breeding dollars.
Most notably, Derby winner Orb, who was considered a top contender for the Eclipse, provided Will Take Charge didn’t win the Clark, is done, and curiously so. His connections, trainer Shug McGaughey and owners Stuart Janney and Dinny Phipps, have said nothing that would indicate that Orb is unsound and wouldn’t have been a serious racing force at 4. Nice knowing you.
A traffic-troubled eighth in the Derby, seventh in the Preakness and 10th in the Belmont, Will Take Charge pulled out a championship by turning it up during racing’s equivalent of Oscar season.
He followed up the Travers with a win in the Pennsylvania Derby and nearly won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, falling a nose short of Mucho Macho Man.
Game On Dude had been a front-runner for Horse of the Year for most of 2013, until the late-running Will Take Charge beat him on Eclipse Award wrap-up weekend.
Three different Triple Crown race winners were supposed to meet in the Travers, but Oxbow missed it due to an ankle injury, leaving it to his stablemate to be the designated hitter, and the Travers will go down as the turning point in determining the 3-year-old champion colt.
It was reminiscent of 1995 for Lukas, who brought a Preakness winner, Timber Country, to the Travers, but scratched the night before because of a high temperature.
That left it to stablemate Thunder Gulch to get the job done, and he did so on his way to the 3-year-old championship.
“We went down and looked at that little Thunder Gulch and said, ‘Ball is in your court, here you go,’ ” Lukas said after the Travers. “That’s kind of what happened this time. We sent Oxbow home for some freshening and cranked this one out.”
The story didn’t end there.
Adding a twist of controversy, Moreno’s trainer, Eric Guillot, who endeared himself by hosting a gumbo cookout at his barn the morning before the Travers, accused jockey Luis Saez of using a hand-held electrical device to jolt Will Take Charge into a late kick to win.
An investigation followed and yielded no evidence to support the claim.
To Guillot’s credit, he publically apologized to Lukas at the Breeders’ Cup draw.
To Lukas’ credit, he took the high road on the issue from the start, giving Guillot all the rope he needed to hang himself.
It’ll go down as merely a strange tangent to Will Take Charge’s season.
The Clark, meanwhile, will go down as a microcosm and metaphor for Will Take Charge’s season. Lukas cobbled together a championship season for the filly Surfside by sending her to the Clark in 2000, and this time he solidified one for Will Take Charge, although he believed he should’ve already had it in the bag, win or lose in the Clark.
“I don’t trust you people,” he said, as the media laughed after the race. “I like to take the argument out of it.”
While Game On Dude grabbed the early spotlight on Friday evening, Will Take Charge settled behind, made his long-striding rally and got there in the end, the same move he used in nearly winning the BC Classic.
We’ll have to remember that next year, when the Derby winner is overhyped yet again (guilty as charged).