Owner Willis D. Horton has been around this game long enough to know it's risky to get your hopes too high for the Kentucky Derby.
Horton has owned quite a few nice horses over the years but not one of them has made it into the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.
“It's hard to get a horse to the Derby,” Horton said from his home in Marshall, Ark. “You've got to be lucky to start with. You've got to have the trainer. And of course, you've got to have the pedigree and the size, and this is what we have this year.”
Horton owns Will Take Charge, who took charge in the stretch at Oaklawn Park March 16, capturing the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes and a vital 50 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. He currently sits atop the standings with 60 points, assured of a spot in the 20-horse field, as long as Horton's luck doesn't turn.
It has before. In 2000, Horton had a promising colt named Highest Praise, who was among the early Derby favorites. But it wasn't meant to be. Highest Praise had a heart attack in training and died.
“I've been in the business so long, I know there are more downs than ups,” said Horton. “When you get an up, it's great. But it's a tough situation to be in.”
In Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, Horton also has a trainer well-versed in the highs and lows of the Classics. Between 1988 and 1999, Lukas watched four of his charges hit the finish line first in the Kentucky Derby but also saw Charismatic break a leg just strides from capturing the Triple Crown in 1999.
Even Will Take Charge's sire, Unbridled's Song, has connections to both the victory and heartbreak of Triple Crown moments. His father, Unbridled, won the Derby in 1990 and produced 1996 winner Grindstone. But in 2008, Unbridled Song's daughter, Eight Belles, famously broke down after finishing second to Big Brown in the Derby.
Going into this year's Rebel, Lukas and Horton were quietly confident they had a legitimate Derby contender, even if bettors didn't agree. They made Will Take Charge a 28-1 longshot. But the colt sat off the pace in the 11-horse field, came four-wide off the turn, and bore down for the stretch run to outfinish stablemate Oxbow.
“I thought he ran a heckuva race,” Horton said. “And he's doing exactly what we want him to do – lay in the pack and show that kick in the stretch. He's got a heckuva kick.”
Horton bought Will Take Charge at the September 2011 Keeneland yearling sale for $425,000. In addition to the colt's conformation and size, Horton liked what he saw on both sides of the catalog page. His dam, Take Charge Lady, was a multiple Grade 1 winner who won half her races and finished at least second in 18 of 22 starts. She produced Take Charge Indy, winner of last year's Florida Derby.
“I looked at hundreds of horses, and I liked him better than any,” Horton said of Will Take Charge.
Horton first envisioned owning a Derby contender at a young age, going to the races at Oaklawn Park. After he and his family started D. R. Horton Custom Homes and turned it into the country's largest builder of single-family dwellings, the goal of owning top-level horses became a reality. The family members retired in 1992 when the company went public, and they began investing in racehorses. Their biggest victory to date was Lemons Forever, who won the 2006 Kentucky Oaks at 47-1.
Now, Horton is as close as he's ever been to the one dream he hasn't realized. He said while Will Take Charge doesn't need another start before May 4, he might get one more prep in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn or Keeneland's Blue Grass Stakes. Or he might just stay in training and go to Louisville a fresh horse.
Either way, if luck remains on his side, Horton will not just be a spectator at Churchill Downs, as he's been in many previous years.
“It's just a lifelong dream,” he said. “I'll probably just be standing nervous, waiting for the time to come on.”
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