The Last Shall be First

Nov. 30, 2013

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On Friday afternoon I remembered well how I felt back in 2004 when I thought Smarty Jones had done so much for racing that he earned the title of Horse of the Year. Here I was nine years later in a different frame of mind, but once again it involved an Oaklawn-raced three-year-old and the race for the title of Horse-of-the-Year.  The title that year went to the undefeated and obviously talented Ghostzapper, who only raced four times and was virtually unknown outside of racing circles.

Here we were on the last Friday of November and a flashy-looking chestnut colt named Will Take Charge ran down the incredibly talented Game On Dude to capture the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs.  In terms of flashy, Will Take Charge appears the easiest to notice chestnut since Secretariat.  He has a nearly totally white face and a persistence about himself which is easy to like.  Little is known of him outside of racing circles, but his recent form has put him squarely in the Horse-of-the-Year picture with the defending champion, Wise Dan.  The latter was a winner on Breeders’ Cup weekend, although he passed the chance to win the richest of the race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a rate which included another of Will Take Charge’s memorable stretch runs to just miss catching the pacesetting winner, Mucho Macho Man.  On Saturday it was Will Take Charge who finished with great long strides and incredible tenacity to get the win and, essentially, win the title of three-year-old of the year.

Clearly, when he left Oaklawn after his Rebel win, there were few who saw in him what was about to develop. The Clark win took his earnings to $3,055,148, surpassing the $2,480,377 of his very special dam, Take Charge Lady, who was involved in one of the great races in Oaklawn history.  And there is the presence of trainer D. Wayne Lukas appearing in each edition of the story.

Lukas is, of course, the trainer of Will Take Charge and, at 78-years-of-age, simply underscoring the greatness of a career which spans forty years, although it is the last 25 which have cemented his place among the all-time greats.  Oaklawn fans take great pleasure in the fact that Lukas has made Oaklawn and Hot Springs his wintertime headquarters during the past decade and it all does go back to 2004 and, to a certain degree, to the Will Take Charge story.

In 2003, Take Charge Lady led every jump of the Apple Blossom Handicap but the last one, falling to champion Azeri in one of the most thrilling finishes in the lengthy history of the Spa oval.  I get to see a picture of that finish every day, since I have a mousepad at my computer which shows the finish of that race in what I think is the finest photograph of a race finish ever taken.  Take Charge Lady and Azeri are in perfect synchrony,  all legs off the ground, ears pricked forward and perfectly in stride as they went over the finish line.  Too bad the Coady Photography Group didn’t win the Eclipse Award that year, since the race would have so much long-term impact on the industry.

One year later Azeri would be sent to the shedrow of Lukas and become the only female runner to ever record three straight Apple Blossom wins.  Take Charge Lady was retired and eventually foaled Will Take Charge, who made his way to the Lukas barn and the rest, as they say, is history.  The whole family has an important tie to Oaklawn in the 21st century.

But for me on Friday, I am hoping that, for Will Take Charge, the last shall be first.  I hope the lasting memory of his win over what I thought was his most serious competitor, Game On Dude, would give him the Horse-of-the-Year title.  Wise Dan will be tough to beat in the balloting, but memories have historically been short when these choices are made and the impact of the win by Will Take Charge should be dominant.  The choice by the Wise Dan connections to pass the Breeders’ Cup Classic may also weigh in.

Clearly these are a whole different set of circumstances than occurred in 2004, when Smarty Jones was retired soon after his Belmont Stakes loss.  Interestingly enough, neither owner Willis Horton, nor trainer D. Wayne Lukas, were willing to suggest what lies ahead for Will Take Charge in 2014.  Will he race or go directly to stud, which has become so fashionable over the last 20 years or so.  At Oaklawn we can only hope that he races and will be on hand in Hot Springs.  Then again we will have to deal with the intense recruiting which is done by Dubai for the World Cup.  If Will Take Charge continues his racing career, will we really get to see him in Hot Springs?

All of this will be decided in the next few weeks or so.  But for one, brief shining moment, the racing fans of Oaklawn could smile about one of their own and his great success.  We will always be there to welcome back Lukas, who has been such a plus for the racing program at Oaklawn over the past decade or so.  No matter what happens with Will Take Charge, this will continue to be one of the finest venues for racing in the Spring.

But if we have our druthers, we’d sure like to see Will Take Charge again this coming year.  In the meantime we pray that “the last shall be first”.  Here’s our vote for Will Take Charge for Horse-of-the-Year.

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