Title chase

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Palace Malice just defeated a late-closing Will Take Charge in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga Race Course to solidify his status as a leading contender to win the Eclipse Award for champion three-year old of 2013 yet D. Wayne Lukas could not have been more thrilled with the effort of the runner-up’s effort.

“I don’t think they’re looking forward to meeting Oxbow or this one,” Lukas said near the steps leading to the box seats in the clubhouse. “He’s going to be effective in the Travers, but I think he’s going to be even better late in the fall.”

Effective in the Travers? That he was, there’s no escaping that. Will Take Charge earned a victory in the Travers by defeating pacesetter Moreno by a head.

Even better late in the fall? Lukas was right about that, too. Since scoring a victory in the Travers, Will Take Charge added the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing and a sharp runner-up effort in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park behind Mucho Macho Man to his resume.

Not many racing fans would have thought Will Take Charge would be Eclipse Award-winning material earlier in the summer, but a lot has changed since then.

Lukas certainly had hope in the Unbridled’s Song colt during this time.

“I thought he had a great chance to be top 3-year-old,” Lukas said earlier this week from his barn at Churchill Downs, where he is based in where he will run Will Take Charge in Friday’s Grade 1 Clark Handicap. “At that point it was really up for grabs. Orb, Palace Malice, him [Will Take Charge] and even Oxbow were all in the picture. I always have said that championships are won in the fall and never in the spring and I thought that we’d finish up in good order.”

So far, so good.

Will Take Charge has performed so well this fall that he is indeed under consideration for championship honors.

Lukas has trained two winners of the divisional title – Thunder Gulch in 1995 and Charismatic (also Horse of the Year) in 1999. But his white-faced chestnut colt has one final test this year, and it will come in the $500,000 Clark. The 1 1/8-mile Clark will be his second start against older horses, following the Breeders’ Cup.

Lukas was all smiles when second in the Jim Dandy. Not so much after the Classic.

“The Breeders’ Cup broke my heart for the simple reason that we ran the best horse,” Lukas said. “If you watch the race, we ran further than any other horse in the race. Palace Malice is pushing us all the way to the 8 or 9 hole and it cost him [Palace Malice] probably a placing, and definitely cost us the race once you get it down to an inch.”

The Clark is a race that Lukas found success in once before with filly Surfside in 2000. If Will Take Charge wins, it will be his fifth victory from 11 starts this year. With such a long, demanding campaign for a 3-year-old, Lukas said it’s all the more reason as to why his horse deserves an Eclipse Award.

“That’s something that I think if you’re going to vote for a championship, then you have to take into consideration,” he said. “I have trouble throwing bouquets to horses who have won 15 minutes of fame, I feel like you have to look at the big picture. We started in early February and we’ve danced every dance, we’ve met the best competition of our class, we’ve stepped out of the box and met the best competition in the older horses, so I feel pretty good about that. We’ve got a damn good horse.”

He’s right about that, but Will Take Charge won’t get a breather in the Clark.

Game On Dude ships in from the West Coast to attempt to redeem his own Eclipse Award credentials after a disappointing ninth in the Classic. Lukas believes his colt has what it takes to beat him again, he won’t be embarrassed if Game On Dude turns the tables on him.

“He can beat [Game On Dude] again,” Lukas said. “I have great respect and a great friendship with Bob Baffert. It will be a wonderful race for the crowd, and a nice climax to the end of a very good season for Game On Dude, and a very good season for Will Take Charge. I don’t think either one of them would be embarrassed or would have to hang their head at all if they do get beat.”

Baffert won the Clark with Isitingood in 1996 and Silver Charm in 1998. A victory by Game On Dude would increase the Awesome Again gelding’s title chances in the older male division and possibly even Horse of the Year of voters discount his Classic finish. Game On Dude won three of Southern California’s premier Grade 1s for older horses – the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic.

Game On Dude is also no stranger to Churchill and finished second to Drosselmeyer in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Classic in Louisville.

“He ran great in the Breeders Cup that day,” Baffert said earlier this week. “He ran on the lead and put away Uncle Mo and some other really good horses. That was a really good Breeders’ Cup race. He got run down after putting everybody away, but at least he came back and didn’t get hurt. He came back and was happy.”

If Game On Dude gets the Eclipse Award for champion older male, it would be Baffert’s first in that division. A Horse of the Year title would be his second, following champion 3-year-old Point Given’s crown in 2001. Not surprisingly, Baffert prefers to wait until the Clark is complete before determining if Game On Dude is worthy of any year-end honors.

“We have to run the race first,” Baffert said. “It’s a shame that he had a tremendous year and then all of a sudden he runs one bad race. But Mucho Macho Man is a nice horse his last two races were just unbelievable. Wise Dan is a great horse. There are some nice horses. It’s a great handicap group.”

Golden Ticket could spoil the day for both potential Eclipse Award winners.

Trainer Ken McPeek opted for the Clark instead of Saturday’s to Grade 1 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct, which features the likes of Goldencents and Groupie Doll, for the 2012 dead-heat Travers winner.

“We chose the Clark for a couple reasons,” McPeek said. “One, we didn’t have to ship, and it looked like the Clark was coming up a lighter field than the Cigar Mile. Looked like there was a big combination of sprinters and milers going up to New York and we wanted to keep him here at Churchill, a track where he’s run a couple of his best races.”

Golden Ticket ran a late-closing second last time out behind the pace-setting Goldencents in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita.

“We thought he’d run big,” McPeek said. “He’s obviously a big, solid horse and he’s been consistent for a long time. We’d like to win another Grade 1 with him, it’s just a matter of if it all falls into place.”

Completing the field for the Clark are Finnegan’s Wake, who looks to give trainer Dale Romans back-to-back victories in this race after winning last year with 2011 Preakness winner Shackleford, Bourbon Courage, Prayer for Relief, Easter Gift, Our Double Play, and Jaguar Paw.

The Clark is one of several marquee events set for the three days that follow Thanksgiving and one of four graded races Friday. The others are the Grade 2 Go For Wand at Aqueduct, the Grade 2 Citation at Hollywood Park and the Grade 3 Berkeley at Golden Gate Fields.

Saturday’s schedule is loaded, with the Cigar Mile leading the way. Aqueduct also hosts the Grade 2 Remsen and Demoiselle for 2-year-olds and Grade 3 Comely for 3-year fillies.

Churchill’s closing-day card, its Stars of Tomorrow II program for 2-year-olds, includes the co-featured Grade 2 Golden Rod and Kentucky Jockey Club. The day also features a public appearance of Horse of the Year hopeful and two-time Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Wise Dan in the paddock with the horses for the third race between 1:15 and 1:45 p.m. ET.

Hollywood Park runs the Grade 3 Generous and Miesque on grass for juveniles and then wraps the big weekend Sunday with a pair of Grade 1s on turf with the Hollywood Derby and Matriarch.

Hawthorne Race Course hosts the Grade 2 Hawthorne Gold Cup Saturday, a race that drew Breeders’ Cup Classic fifth-place finisher Last Gunfighter and 2012 dead-head Travers winner and 2013 Woodward winner Alpha.

Watch the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Watch Will Take Charge win the 2013 Travers.

Watch Game On Dude win the 2013 Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic.