11/29/2013 7:49PM

Churchill Downs: Will Take Charge by a head in Clark Handicap

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Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
Will Take Charge (left) edges Game On Dude by a head in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Friday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Rarely does a race actually match its buildup, but the dramatic finish to the Clark Handicap may have surpassed the hype Friday when Will Take Charge ran down Game On Dude in a sensational renewal of the Churchill Downs fall-meet signature event.

“What a Clark,” said winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas after Will Take Charge was up by a head in the final jumps of the Grade 1, $550,700 race. “You couldn’t have written a much better script than this.”

Game On Dude, the 6-5 favorite in a field of nine, had put away all pursuers with a furlong to go in the 139th running of the Clark, with only Will Take Charge and jockey Luis Saez having a realistic shot to catch him. And that he did, poking his bald nose in front just yards from the wire, capping what was a sensational second half to the 2013 season, and surely clinching Eclipse honors in the 3-year-old division.

Will Take Charge, owned by Willis Horton, returned $6.80 to win as the second choice after finishing in 1:49.39 over a fast track.

Easter Gift finished third, two lengths behind the top pair, with the late-starting Bourbon Courage, the 6-1 third choice, another 1 3/4 lengths back in fourth.

Will Take Charge was coming off a heartbreaking nose defeat to Mucho Macho Man in the Nov. 2 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita, and Lukas said he feared a similar result Friday as the finish approached.

“I told Willis we were going to need every yard,” Lukas said. “This colt never gave up. He’s really learned what it’s all about.”

Bob Baffert, the trainer of Game On Dude, chose not to make the trip to Churchill following a Thanksgiving holiday in Tennessee, but Lukas said he wished Baffert had been there because of the longstanding rivalry they have built over the past 20 years or so. Joe Torre, the retired baseball manager and one of the co-owners of Game On Dude, was among those in the paddock prior to the race.

“Bob and I have had so many great head-to-head matches over the years,” Lukas said. “This was just a great race. It’s what racing’s all about. I’m sure Bob would be enjoying it with us.”

Clearly, Game On Dude did nothing to diminish his chances for an Eclipse Award in the older horse division with his gritty effort in defeat, one that helps to partially erase the memory of his ninth-place finish as the favorite in the BC Classic.

Baffert assistant Jim Barnes said afterward: “We showed up. We got beat by a good horse. Wayne’s horse is good right now, and he’s showing it.”

Running under the lights, Game On Dude settled nicely after a sharp break from the inside post as Our Double Play and Jaguar Paw sped to the lead from the two outside posts.

Down the backstretch, jockey Mike Smith angled Game On Dude off the rail to stalk Our Double Play, a 14-1 shot who had set fractions of 23.80 seconds, 47.29, and 1:11.14, and by the quarter pole, Game On Dude, a winner of seven Grade 1 events and more than $5.6 million, had surged to the lead, with nothing but clear sailing ahead. Smith went to a punishing left-handed whip down the lane, as did Saez.

“If I could do anything over, I might have waited a little bit more,” Smith said. “But in doing that, [Will Take Charge] might have got me easier. At some point, I thought I’d want to try and put a little distance between us because we’ve all seen Game On Dude do that and destroy a field.”

Will Take Charge, a chestnut Kentucky-bred by the late Unbridled’s Song, has won six of 15 starts, with the $327,777 winner’s share lifting his career bankroll to $3,055,148. After finishing off the board in each of the three Triple Crown events, the colt really came to hand, with victories in the Grade 1 Travers and Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby preceding the BC Classic.

Horton lives in Arkansas, where Oaklawn Park is located and where early next week Lukas will be sending his entire stable, led by Will Take Charge, who will race as a 4-year-old.

After the top four, the order of finish was Jaguar Paw, Finnegans Wake, Our Double Play, Golden Ticket, and Prayer for Relief.

The $2 exacta (7-1) paid $18.60, the $1 trifecta (7-1-6) returned $60.90, and the 10-cent superfecta (7-1-6-3) was worth $17.90.