While Willis D. Horton spends most of his time these days on his
cattle farm in Marshall, Ark., he will be making his second trip in a
month to Gulfstream Park this weekend.
In January, Horton held court on the podium in the Sport of Kings
hall when Will Take Charge was honored with the Eclipse Award as the
nation's champion 3-year-old. On Sunday, Horton will be on hand at
Gulfstream when Will Take Charge makes his 2014 bow in the $500,000 Donn
Horton's colorbearer made a surge during the second half of the 2013
racing season, winning the Travers Stakes (G1), Pennsylvania Derby (G2)
and Clark Handicap (G1) and finishing a whisker behind Mucho Macho Man
in the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1). The latter event was voted as the
National Thoroughbred Racing Association's "Moment of the Year," and
Will Take Charge wound up third when the ballots were counted for Horse
of the Year. Horton, 73, has even bigger dreams for Will Take Charge
"It was absolutely exciting," Horton reflected. "We fought so hard
for it. I think that the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs after the
Breeders' Cup put the lock on it for us. It was a tremendous thrill to
get (the Eclipse Award), and this year I'm shooting to get Horse of the
Year. I was hoping to meet Mucho Macho Man (again), but my understanding
is they don't want to run against us until the Breeders' Cup. If we get
through the Donn Handicap in good shape then we'll go on to the Santa
Anita Handicap (G1). All last year we didn't dodge anybody, we went
everywhere we wanted to go regardless of who was in it, and we're still
taking that same position. We'll stay in Grade 1 races all this
Horton grew up in Marshall and regularly made the 140-mile drive to
Oaklawn Park. He later joined his family's business, D. R. Horton Custom
Homes. The company was sold in 1992 and allowed Horton to pursue his
longtime equine interests.
"My wife (Glenda) and I have always been fond of horses and have
always had horses, mostly Quarter Horses," Horton said. "One thing led
to another, and I always wanted to be in the Thoroughbred business
because I'd grown up going to Oaklawn, so that's what led me to
Will Take Charge is conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne
Lukas. Horton has been in the racing game for several decades and has
employed a number of conditioners during that time. Despite his being a
denizen of Oaklawn, where Lukas is often stabled, the two first crossed
paths in Louisville.
"I met Wayne at Churchill Downs," Horton recalled. "At the time, we
hadn't been having any luck. We had just left the track when I made the
suggestion that we go back to the track and the first good trainer we
run into, we'll have him start training our horses. Wayne was going down
the steps as we were coming up, and I collared him."
The Arkansas native established Horton Stable with his son Cam,
brother Leon and nephew Terry. That partnership later teamed up with
Dallas Stewart, who had worked for Lukas before setting out his own
"Wayne was training for us at the time and Dallas was his assistant,"
Horton explained. "There were four of us involved (in Horton Stable).
Dallas wanted to go out on his own, so we loaned him the money and
helped him get started."
The Hortons tasted major success with Lemons Forever, a filly they
co-owned with Stewart. A $140,000 yearling purchase, Lemons Forever
unleashed a strong rally to post a 47-1 upset in the 2006 running of the
$1-million Kentucky Oaks (G1). The following year, they sold her as a
broodmare prospect for a seven-figure sum.
"That was really
exciting," Horton acknowledged. "We sold her for two-and-half-million
dollars. It sure doesn't always work out that way."
Horton later campaigned the talented sprinter Partner's Hero, and
more recently was represented by stakes winner Laurie's Rocket. The
latter was originally with Stewart, but was transferred to Lukas when
Horton reconnected with the veteran trainer in 2012.
"Dallas and I parted ways, so I picked up the phone and called
Wayne," Horton said. "I asked him if he wanted my horses again and he
said he did. I've been in the racing business for about 50 years. I used
to try to make it with cheaper horses and it didn't work out, so I
stepped up my game."
That marked a turn of fortune in the racing game for both men. At the
Keeneland September Yearling Sale in 2011, Horton extended himself to
$425,000 for a regally bred colt by Unbridled's Song out of the
millionaire race mare Take Charge Lady. Lukas had been involved in the
bidding for the flashy chestnut colt, but deferred to his former and
future client. The colt in question was Will Take Charge, who showed
flashes of early talent for Horton and Lukas. A game winner of the Rebel
Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn last spring, Will Take Charge took his lumps
during the Triple Crown series of 2013, but finally lived up to his
pedigree and rewarded Horton's faith.
"I had confidence in him all the time," Horton said. "He was such a
big, growthy horse that needed the time to grow into his body. He always
had a good mind and was always a good-looking horse, but just had to
mature. He did what I expected. Of course, he didn't do it as soon as I
Horton acknowledged that a horse's price tag isn't always an indicator of success.
"I've paid up to seven- or eight-hundred thousand for some," he said
ruefully. "They didn't do any good, of course. But I've got one that I
paid $700,000 for last September that might be alright. He's down in
Texas now with Eddie Milligan, who breaks all my horses at Twin Oaks
That pricy youngster was one of a trio of yearlings that Horton
purchased this past September in hopes of finding a successor to Will
Take Charge. One of them was a $435,000 granddaughter of Take Charge
Lady that he has named Take Charge Brandi, and the aforementioned
$700,000 yearling is a son of leading sire Medaglia d'Oro that Horton
has dubbed Will Did It.
Horton resides on his 7,000-acre spread in Marshall, and is enjoying the ride Will Take Charge has provided.
"Racing is about it," he said when asked about his other interests.
"I'm retired, just a cattle farmer now up in north Arkansas. Racing is
about my only hobby, if you want to call it a hobby. It's a business,
but it's the only thing that I do that I enjoy."
Though thrilled by Will Take Charge's success, Horton has retained
his pragmatic business sense. Late last year, he sold a half-interest in
his star runner for an undisclosed sum to Three Chimneys
"He's got the strongest fan base that I've ever seen," Horton said.
"My family wanted to keep him and run him another year and didn't really
want me to sell any part of him. I was able to make a deal to sell half
of him and keep him in training this year."
Lemons Forever, meanwhile, is the dam of this year's promising
3-year-old filly Unbridled Forever. Horton was philosophical about
parting with Lemons Forever, albeit for a substantial
"I do regret selling her a little bit, but she's got a really
promising baby," Horton said. "You always have regrets. It's sort of
like with Will Take Charge--sometimes I think I may have made a mistake
in selling half of him, but in this business you have to do what's the
best for everything."