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.