Horton Eyes Horse Of The Year Crown With Will Take Charge
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL - 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 Handicap (G1).
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 this year.
"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 year."
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 it."
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 shingle.
"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 was expecting."
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 Farm."
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 Farm.
"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 figure.
"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."