Photo: Eclipse Sportswire
Shortly after D. Wayne Lukas won his first Kentucky Derby with the filly Winning Colors back in 1988, Restless Heart had a top 5 hit on the country music chart called Big Dreams in a Small Town. The lyrics began as follows…
“Big dreams in a small town, eighteen and glory bound. Nothing here to tie us down, big dreams in a small town.”
This could very well serve as the symbolic theme song for the owner of Will Take Charge – Willis D. Horton. Mr. Horton was doing more than day-dreaming back then as he was working in a family business that would become D.R. Horton Custom Homes, the nation’s largest home builder based in my backyard of Ft. Worth, Texas. Since then, Mr. Horton has been able to retire to his roots in the 1,300 resident town of Marshall, Arkansas (the proper abbreviation is AR and not AK for you national reporters). Over the past 20 years Mr. Horton has been focused on a more difficult task – handicapping horses at the lone horse track in the state of Arkansas, Oaklawn Park, in historic Hot Springs National Park. We have a saying in Arkansas that there are actually two professional sports franchises – the Razorbacks and Oaklawn Park!
When I asked about his long association with Oaklawn, Mr. Horton was quick to respond that the drive from his home was right at 2 hours and 20 minutes each way. “I think the world of Oaklawn,” said Mr. Horton. “They all turn out at that track and are very enthused.” He went on to say that this is the only sport he is involved with since he doesn’t hunt, fish or golf - a true rarity in the Natural State. “It is nice to have a horse that can finally outrun me after being an owner for nearly 50 years,” continued Mr. Horton, who said his first horse probably cost about $1,500 and that he’s tried to keep a few in training each year to stay in the game after starting small due to limited funds. He advised prospective owners that at some point to be enjoyable “You’ve got to get a good bred horse. Instead of four or five, buy one good one… you’ve got to have a big horse to make it.” And that has been his approach since 2006 when his family’s stable went in with trainer Dallas Stewart on a “BIG” filly named Lemons Forever.
The aptly named daughter of Lemon Drop Kid entered the filly equivalent of the Derby – the Kentucky Oaks – in 2006 off an Oaklawn allowance score and third place finish in Keeneland’s Grade 3 Bourbonette Stakes. Lemons Forever would shock the racing world when she stormed home eight wide to take the lilies as the longest shot on the board at 47-1. It would not be wise of the bettors on Saturday to make the same mistake underestimating this humble Arkansan and his regally bred chestnut colt. Mr. Horton did not even bring up the story of Lemons Forever during our 15 minute conversation. Instead, he was aware that this moment was squarely about Will Take Charge and how he thinks a victory on Saturday could set him up nicely for a Triple Crown run that has been seemingly unachievable after the dozen close calls since Affirmed last accomplished the feat in 1978.
Regarding Will Take Charge’s odds come Saturday, Mr. Horton quickly estimated that he would go postward in the 20 to 30-1 range, which proves he acknowledges the unheralded and overlooked status of his “forgotten” horse. That is because the mainstream media attention is focused on Todd Pletcher’s quintet, Bob Baffert’s absence, Doug O’Neill’s Derby curtain call or Rick Pitino’s hot streak (Louisville Cardinals Championship and his minority interest in Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents).
Heck, Will Take Charge is even playing second fiddle to the other D. Wayne Lukas trainee, Oxbow, who WTC narrowly defeated in the Rebel Stakes at odds of nearly 30-1 in his last start some seven weeks ago. If you think this is a strange pattern to see a Wayne Lukas horse go that long between races, let’s just say Mr. Horton may have had a vote in this decision. He knows this decision could backfire, but he has managed to make a few great judgment calls on his own with his horse, such as going over his prescribed budget of 400K at the 2011 Keeneland yearling sale to secure the strapping chestnut son of Unbridled’s Song out of the great Dehere race mare, Take Charge Lady.
In another touch of Oaklawn nostalgia, Take Charge Lady was a Grade I winner whose greatest race may have come in defeat to Azeri in Oaklawn’s 2003 Apple Blossom – one of the greatest races I have ever personally witnessed. Will Take Charge is also one of two Derby starters in consecutive years by the same dam (Take Charge Indy, 2012 FL Derby winner) along with Verrazano being out of the same Giant’s Causeway mare (Enchanted Rock) as El Padrino in last year’s Derby. This year’s crop seems to be a notch above those two and may end up being my Derby exacta box.More than anything, Mr. Horton wants to win the Kentucky Derby not for the personal fame or riches, but for the people of his hometown of Searcy County. He said winning the Derby in this manner would provide him with “the biggest thrill of my life.” Not only for your hometown Mr. Horton, but a victory would make the entire state of Arkansas burst with pride as we did when W. Cal Partee’s Lil E. Tee stormed past heavily-favored Arazi in the 1992 Run for the Roses. Or when the state-adopted Smarty Jones pulled the Arkansas – Kentucky Derby double in 2004 with the $5 million Oaklawn bonus on the line. Good things do not always happen to good people, but when they do the result is often magical. Being from a small Arkansas town myself, I’m hoping for a magical result on Saturday for my new friend, Mr. Willis Horton. And if Will Take Charge happens to draw the #18 post position, I know good things will be in store for him. “Big dreams in a small town, eighteen and glory bound…”