03/06/2014 4:55PM

Horton sets sights on an Eclipse Award encore

Michael Amoruso
Owner Willis Horton leads Will Take Charge back after his win in the Travers Stakes.

All of racing found out the night of Jan. 18 what Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas has known for decades – Willis Horton is one of the sport’s best-kept secrets.

During that Eclipse Awards gala at Gulfstream Park, Horton had the room roaring when he gave a folksy, funny, and heartfelt acceptance speech for his champion 3-year-old male Will Take Charge. He’s since been told he needs an agent, while the speech itself has received hundreds of views on YouTube.

“He won the whole industry over that night,” said Lukas, who trains Will Take Charge. “I enjoy him just like the whole industry is starting to enjoy him. The industry has endorsed him and embraced him because he’s different, he’s down to earth, and he’s enthusiastic about the game.”

Horton, an affable 73-year-old who operates a sizable cattle farm in his native Marshall, Ark., had racing by the tail for a good portion of 2013. Will Take Charge, half of his two-horse stable, won five stakes races, including the Grade 1 Travers Stakes and Grade 1 Clark Handicap. The horse also was second in the $4.6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.

His colt’s record sent Horton to the Eclipse Awards for the first time in his more than 30 years in racing. A few hours in, he would celebrate his first champion. Horton, whose family founded D.R. Horton Homes, savored the experience alongside his wife of 57 years, Glenda.

“She stayed on me all week about me preparing a speech and wanted to know what I was going to say,” Horton said. “I said, ‘Well, I have no idea what I’m going to say.’ She said, ‘You need to practice your speech,’ and I said, ‘No,’ because I like to speak off the cuff. Everything was so dead that night. There wasn’t no life in the crowd, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll bring this bunch to their feet, if I can,’ and sure enough I did.

“Gary Stevens liked to tickle me to death. He was right down in front of me, there at the podium, and he was about to fall out of his seat. It was hard for me to talk for watching him!”

The party continued when the Hortons returned to their hotel and caught a replay of the speech.

“When we got home, we turned on the TV, and there it was,” Glenda Horton said. “We just laughed and laughed.”

Horton’s love affair with horses started early in life, when he competed in rodeo events with Glenda, who also is a native of Marshall, a town located about 2 1/2 hours north of Oaklawn Park.

“When we were dating we had Quarter Horses, both of us together,” Willis Horton said. “We’d make rodeos. She did the barrel racing and I did calf roping. From that, we bought two” racehorses.

Horton eventually delved deeper into the sport, forming Horton Stable with one of his sons, Cam; his brother, Leon; and a nephew, Terry. Their top horses included Partner’s Hero, winner of the Grade 2 Kentucky Cup Sprint in 1997, and Private Pursuit, runner-up in the Grade 2 Alcibiades Stakes in 1996. Both horses were trained by Lukas. Also in 1996, Horton Stable won the Kentucky Oaks with Lemons Forever, trained by one of Lukas’s former assistants, Dallas Stewart.

“It was tremendous,” Horton said of winning the Oaks. “I remember they were taking us for an interview. We were walking down the aisle where all the fans were, and I hollered at them, ‘We’re going to have lemonade tonight!’ ”

The comment was classic Horton.

“He’s a wonderful person to train for because he takes the wins with great exuberance and passion, but he also understands that we’re not going to win every race like we’d like to,” Lukas said on a recent morning at Oaklawn. “He takes that very well, too.”

Horton, who ended up buying out his partners when they decided to leave racing, has continued to attend yearling auctions each season. It was in September 2011 at Keeneland when he was taken with a chestnut son of Unbridled’s Song and the multiple Grade 1 winner Take Charge Lady that he landed with a bid of $425,000.

“I was willing to go higher than I did, because he struck me when I saw him,” said Horton, who eventually named the colt Will Take Charge. “He was absolutely beautiful. And his conformation was tremendous. He was really good, and his size was great. And, of course, I liked the breeding off of him real well.”

Horton said Will Take Charge also passed one of his most important tests.

“After I pick out the conformation and size, I look them in the eye,” he said. “If I don’t have a horse that’s got real good eyes and looking at you, I’ll turn my head on him. I’ve got to have that eye.”

Will Take Charge’s earliest training lessons were with Eddie Milligan Jr., at his Twin Oaks Training Center near Tyler, Texas.

“When we got him, he was a big horse, a very pretty horse, and very well balanced,” Milligan said. “He was always real intelligent. And when we started to put pressure on him, you could tell he had a lot of talent.”

Will Take Charge, a winner of 6 of 16 starts and earner of $3,155,148, would become the most accomplished horse to ever come out of Twin Oaks, which Milligan established 16 years ago. These days, Milligan has a trio of 2-year-olds for Horton, all being prepared for the track. The group includes a Medaglia d’Oro colt out of the stakes-winning mare Bonnie Blue Flag and a Giant’s Causeway filly whose second dam is Take Charge Lady. Both were purchased at Keeneland. Horton’s third young racing prospect is a homebred filly by Curlin.

Milligan has been working with Horton’s yearlings for about a half-dozen years.

“To see him have a horse like Will Take Charge – to be the kind of owner he is, a great gentleman to be around – is very gratifying,” Milligan said.

Lukas agrees.

“Here Mr. Horton is, he’s been knocking around in the horse business a long time, and yet he’s suddenly reached the top of the mountain with Will Take Charge, which is really gratifying.”

Horton has two broodmares: Private Pursuit, who recently foaled a Curlin colt and will be bred back to Grade 1 winner Take Charge Indy, and Pleasant Song, a daughter of Unbridled’s Song who will soon produce a Mineshaft foal and will be bred this year to champion sprinter Midnight Lute. The horses are boarded in Kentucky.

As for Will Take Charge, plans are to race him through 2014. He remains on course to start in the Santa Anita Handicap on Saturday. The horse opened his 4-year-old campaign with a runner-up finish in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 9, his first start for the partnership of Horton and Three Chimneys Farm, which purchased a 50 percent interest in the horse in a deal announced at the end of December.

[Santa Anita Handicap: Get PPs, watch Saturday's card live]

“I was always having a problem about selling him,” Horton said. “My whole family didn’t want me to sell him. I told them, ‘The only thing I ever married was your momma.’ So, I’m not married to this horse, but I love him, and I said, ‘If I can get a good enough deal, I’ll make something.’ ”

The agreement with Three Chimneys, the Midway, Ky., operation of Robert and Blythe Clay and the Borges Torrealba family, suited Horton, and the deal was completed in January, he said. The partners will race the horse together, and upon Will Take Charge’s retirement Horton said he may sell his half of the horse. He said at this point it’s not his intention to get into the stallion side of the business.

Will Take Charge will be an appealing addition to the stallion lineup at Three Chimneys for a number of reasons, said the farm’s chief operating officer, Chris Baker.

“I think it’s that rare combination of pedigree, performance, and conformation,” Baker said. “You know, he basically checks all those boxes in an extraordinary way. That makes him a very attractive stallion prospect.”

Baker said he’s looking forward to seeing what the rest of the race year holds for Will Take Charge, whose immediate schedule includes the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap, according to Horton. The long-range goal is a return trip to the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita.

A win there just might set Horton up for an encore performance at the Eclipse Awards.