12/19/2013 2:28PM

Steven Crist: Will Take Charge follows rarely taken path to championship

Barbara D. Livingston
Will Take Charge, finishing second in the Breeders Cup Classic. performed dismally during the Triple Crown series, but was brilliant thereafter.

A month ago, Eclipse Award voters were wondering whether they could invoke amnesia about this year’s Triple Crown races long enough to ink in the name of Will Take Charge as the champion 3-year-old of 2013. There wasn’t a better alternative, but there was enough discomfort with the idea that some began constructing scenarios whereby a victory from Goldencents in the Cigar Mile might be enough to wrest the title away.

That all changed over Thanksgiving weekend, when Goldencents ran seventh in the Cigar a day after Will Take Charge ran down Game On Dude in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs. A victory over the nation’s most accomplished main-track older horse gave Will Take Charge a second Grade 1 victory on the season to go along with his Travers, and Grade 2 scores in the Pennsylvania Derby and Rebel.

Especially after three straight 3-year-old champions (I’ll Have Another, Animal Kingdom, Lookin At Lucky) who neglected to win a race against their elders during their 3-year-old campaigns, Will Take Charge’s Clark triumph made him a thoroughly palatable champion, and even prompted some to advocate he should be considered for the Horse of the Year title over Wise Dan.

That still seems like a longshot, for the reason that Will Take Charge will be a unique 3-year-old champion: His performances in the Triple Crown – eighth in the Derby, seventh in the Preakness, and 10th in the Belmont, all by double-digit margins – are by far the worst by a 3-year-old Eclipse winner since the awards began 42 years ago. (You can find a full list of how 3-year-old champs fared in the Triple Crown on my blog at http://www.drf.com/blogs/steven-crist.)

Of the 42 previous champion 3-year-olds, not one of them finished worse than third in even two Triple Crown races, much less worse than sixth in all three. All but two of those 42 (Tiznow in 2000 and Wajima in 1974) ran in at least one of the three classics, and 36 of those 40 won at least one.

The four exceptions are Holy Bull, 12th in the 1994 Derby in his lone Triple Crown start, but a subsequent winner of the Met Mile, Haskell, Travers, and Woodward; Skip Away, 12th in the 1996 Derby but second in the Preakness and Belmont, before victories in the Haskell and Jockey Club Gold Cup; Slew o’ Gold, fourth in the 1983 Derby and second in the Belmont but then a Woodward and Gold Cup winner; and Key to the Mint, whose 1972 campaign is probably the closest thing to Will Take Charge’s in 3-year-old Eclipse annals.

Key to the Mint, a Rokeby homebred by Graustark trained by Elliott Burch, began his 3-year-old campaign finishing fourth by 10 1/2 lengths in the Bahamas and then 12th in an allowance race. He skipped the Derby, was beaten 5 3/4 lengths when third in Bee Bee Bee’s Preakness and fourth, beaten 12 3/4 lengths in Riva Ridge’s Belmont. Halfway through the year, Riva Ridge was 1-5 to win the 3-year-old title, but Key to the Mint reeled off victories in the Brooklyn, Whitney, Travers, and Woodward. Riva Ridge lost his last five starts of the year and became the only one of 23 Eclipse-era 3-year-olds who won two or more Triple Crown races but was not named champion 3-year-old.

What made such a reversal of fortunes possible was that Key to the Mint and Riva Ridge each made 12 starts in 1972, a number which seems outlandish for a top-flight 3-year-old today, at least until Will Take Charge went to the post 11 times this year. In an era when risk management outweighs sport in virtually every aspect of the game, Will Take Charge’s robust campaign deserves praise more than his early failures deserve scorn. He ran in the biggest races and will be the first 3-year-old champion since Curlin in 2007 even to run in the Derby, Preakness, Belmont, and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

One can only hope that his campaign might encourage others by example. Instead of being managed so cautiously and making just a handful of starts, more horses might thrive with more racing and improve while doing it, fulfilling their potential instead of leaving everyone wondering what might have been.

What began as a disastrous campaign turned into an inspiring one. Whether it was enough to make me vote for him as Horse of the Year is another question, but I’m thinking about it.

Doc Holiday More than 1 year ago
No doubt, Horse of the Year, in sort of an off year. Orb was a big disappointment but sort of typical of a Three Year Old "Derby Horse" burning out. This is a bit of a surprise as well considering how patient his Hall of Fame trainer usually is with horses.
nick More than 1 year ago
What a pompous horses patoot this fellow is. "There wasn't a better alternative" to WTC for 3 yr old horse last month. Orb raced better than WTC for eight months this year. Just look at their records side by side, and beat him in 3 of 4 heads up match-ups. There is your better alternative, even AFTER the Clark.
Cierra Janay More than 1 year ago
Will Take Charge for Horse of the Year!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Denis Murphy More than 1 year ago
I think he is horse of the year.
DB Broyles More than 1 year ago
DB Broyles I think he should get HORSE OF THE YEAR, he is the most improved horse of 2013. He just missed in the Classic, if he had won that race he would get the title.
Jennifer McKague More than 1 year ago
Small point of correction. Riva was the first of *two* colts in the Eclipse Era to win two classics and not be named champion 3yo. You forgot about Tabasco Cat in the year of the Bull.
Ian Phillips More than 1 year ago
Well its wise dan for hoy because he top three in world rankings and has more grade 1than any one else. Strongest bc races were grass races and he was only American to win.consider s week european almost won bc if not for jock 1st on dirt in major race.enough said .wise dan hoy and not even close.
nick More than 1 year ago
P. S. Mr. Christ, If WTC performed brilliantly after the Triple Crown series, what happened in the Jim Dandy? He had no excuse. He got beat fair and square by Palice Malice, who most likely would have beaten him in the Travers if he doesn't blow the start and come away last. He really had no excuse in the Classic either. On a Santa Anita track which played kindly to closers all day, he couldn't beat a horse who was up close to quick early fractions and almost on the lead in 1:10 and change, very quick fractions for a 1&1/4 mile race. He beat nobody in the Penn Derby ,and except for an overrated Game On Dude, who can't race outside of California, beat ABSOLUTELY noone in the Clark. This is brilliancy? Brilliancy would be coming off the short layoff and winning the Jim Dandy by 4 or 5, then the Travers by 2&1/2 to 3 drawing off, then maybe a good 2nd in the Classic, etc. If what WTC actually did after the Triple Crown is brilliant, then Orb's first 8 months were supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. (If anyone stillbremembers what that means . . .) Oh, yeah, Orb handed WTC his head in 3 of their 4 head to head matchups. 3 yr old of the whole YEAR shouldn't be close.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
He is not Christ... His name is Crist.
Greg More than 1 year ago
3 yr old champ, hands down Will Take Charge in a landslide!!!
. More than 1 year ago
I consider the Travers as big as the Kentucky derby and Belmont Stakes. But It's okay if Orb gets the nod for champion. Orb looked great for 2 months. It's simply a 6 week snap shot may to June. Will Take Charge came on too late for that derby period snap shot, I get it We all know who's #1 now.
JDS0810 More than 1 year ago
Huh???? Orb has no shot. Zero.
nick More than 1 year ago
Dear Mr. Dot, Of course we all know who is number one now, no debate there. WTC has grown into a very nice racehorse. The debate is 3 yr old champion of the YEAR. I am curious, however, about which 2 months you speak. Do you mean Feb. and March,.when Orb won the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth and the Grade 1 Florida Derby? Or the end of March to beginning of May, when he won the Grade 1 Florida Derby and Grade 1 Kentucky Derby? Or May and June, when he won the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby, was 4th in the Grade 1 Preakness and 3rd in the Grade 1 Belmont? Orb raced really well for 8 months, from his first race in Jan. winning his first level allowance, to the end of August, where he got beat in the Travers in the final furlong. And, he beat WTC in 3 of the 4 races where they raced against each other. WTC raced solidly for three months, from the end of August to the end of November. But from Feb. 1 to August 26, he had several bad races in Graded company. P.S. As to the Travers being equal to the Kentucky Derby, if you ask any jockey, trainer, owner or breeder which race they would rather win, the Travers or the Kentucky Derby, how do you think the vast majority would answer? I am reasonably certain they would answer the latter.