Bob Baffert’s six-year-old gelding, Game On Dude, takes on D. Wayne Lukas’s three-year-old, Will Take Charge, in Friday’s Grade 1, $500,000 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs. The pair last met in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Santa Anita Park Nov. 2, where Will Take Charge lost by a nose to Mucho Macho Man and Game On Dude finished a disappointing ninth, beaten 11 lengths.
With only one loss in six starts for the year, Game On Dude has been installed as the 8-5 morning line favorite and assigned the high-weight of 126 pounds.
“They’ve weighted him like he’s Horse of the Year, so I guess that’s a compliment,” Baffert said. “I’m glad (Churchill Downs racing secretary Ben) Huffman (who assigned the weights) isn’t down on the horse like everyone else is.”
Baffert’s Game On Dude had been a dominating force in the West Coast’s handicap division this year, winning Del Mar’s Pacific Classic (G1) by 8 ½ lengths, Betfair Hollywood Park’s Hollywood Gold Cup (G1), Santa Anita’s Santa Anita Handicap (G1) and the San Antonio Stakes (G2).
In his only start outside of the Golden State this year, Game On Dude took the Charles Town Classic (G2) at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in Charles Town, WV. Friday’s Clark Handicap could bring the gelding back to the limelight and remind Eclipse Award voters of his qualifications for Horse of the Year honors after his lackluster Breeders’ Cup finish.
D. Wayne Lukas’s Will Take Charge might also be in fine contention for an Eclipse Award with a win in the Clark, when he takes on his elders and tries to add another Grade 1 win to his resume. He’s been assigned 123 pounds, receiving a three-pound weight allowance for his age, and installed as the second choice on the morning line at odds of 9-5.
With three different winners in the Triple Crown series this year and no one dominating the class, another Grade 1 win could put Will Take Charge atop the list for three-year-old honors. Although the son of Unbridled’s Song finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby (G1), seventh in the Preakness Stakes (G1), and tenth in the Belmont Stakes (G1), he came back to continue to challenge the best of his age division in the Jim Dandy Stakes (G1) July 27, where he failed to catch Palace Malice in time and lost by a length. A month later he was back taking on Classic winners Palace Malice and Orb in the Travers Stakes (G1), and winning by a nose over longshot Moreno. He continued his winning streak with another victory over Moreno in the Pennsylvania Derby (G2).
“I think he’s already sealed (the Champion 3-Year-Old Male Award),” Lukas said. “I would rather take the position that the Clark is a significant race with Grade I status and a nice purse, and an opportunity to showcase our horse again. I almost wish there was more to the season, because he is good right now. It’s a prestigious race in many ways. It’s a Grade I and if we could get another Grade I against older competition around two turns, I think it would be significant.”
In his last start, the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), Will Take Charge closed fiercely, but was unable to catch the winner, Mucho Macho Man, in time and lost by a nose.
“To run down those horses – Game On Dude and Mucho Macho Man and those type horses – in the stretch like he did after getting bumped and pushed out was significant,” Lukas said. “I mean, he was running.”
Game On Dude and Will Take Charge will not just have each other to worry about in a field of nine for the Clark. Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) runner-up, Golden Ticket, already has a victory at Churchill Downs and was second to Fort Larned in this year’s running of the Stephen Foster Handicap (G1) at the track June 15. Golden Ticket, for trainer Kenny McPeek, is the third choice on the morning line at odds of 9-2.
Trainer Kellyn Gorder sends out Bourbon Courage, who hasn’t crossed the wire first in four starts this year and would have to go back to Sept. of 2012 for his last win photo, the Super Derby (G2) at Louisiana Downs. He has two second-place finishes this year and two thirds, which includes a disqualification that moved him up to third in the Alysheba (G2). It would be a surprise for Bourbon Courage to outrun Game On Dude or Will Take Charge, but with a solid record of being the bridesmaid, he’s a solid exotic play.
The field from the rail out, with odds, is Game On Dude 8-5, Finnegan’s Wake 20-1, Bourbon Courage 8-1, Golden Ticket 9-2, Prayer for Relief 12-1, Easter Gift 12-1, Will Take Charge 9-5, Our Double Play 20-1, and Jaguar Paw 20-1.
The Clark Handicap is the 11th and featured race on Churchill’s Black Friday card with a scheduled post time of 5:35 p.m. Gates open at 11:30 a.m. and first post is 12:40 p.m.
As a reminder, closing day of Churchill Downs’ fall meet is Saturday. Look for a special visit with reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan between the third and fourth races and two-year-old stakes action in the Golden Rod (G2) and the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2). Plus $1 hotdogs, $1 domestic beers, and $0.50 soft drinks and water all day. Gates open at 11:30 a.m. and first post is 12:40 p.m.
Photo: Breeders’ Cup