HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – A pair of Eclipse Award winners, one at the end of her brilliant career, the other in the prime of his, will take center stage Sunday at Gulfstream Park, where both Groupie Doll and Will Take Charge will make their first start since being named division champions three weeks ago
Groupie Doll, a two-time Eclipse winner, will compete for the final time as the prohibitive favorite in the $200,000 Hurricane Bertie. Will Take Charge, last year’s 3-year-old champion who finished a nose behind Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, launches his 2014 campaign as the highweight and favorite in the $500,000 Donn Handicap. The Donn is one of two Grade 1 races to be decided here Sunday along with the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap.
Both the Donn and Gulfstream Park handicaps will be featured on the inaugural Jockey Club Live on the Fox racing series program, to be broadcast Sunday on Fox Sports 1 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Eastern.
The 1 1/8-mile Donn attracted a field of 11 older horses, led by Will Take Charge, who has not raced since closing out his 3-year-old season with a head decision over Game on Dude in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs. Will Take Charge, who is owned by Willis D. Horton and Three Chimneys Farm LLC, concluded the year with 5 victories in 11 starts. He captured the Grade 1 Travers, Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby, and Grade 2 Rebel. The Breeders’ Cup Classic was his only loss in four tries since trainer D. Wayne Lukas first teamed him up with jockey Luis Saez for the Travers.
Will Take Charge shipped in to Gulfstream from his Oaklawn Park base.
“He had a good month and I think he’s ready to go,” Lukas said. “I was a little bit concerned about the long ship, but it seems like he’s handled it well. He’s training well, he’s more mature, and he’s stronger than he was.”
Will Take Charge will carry high weight of 123 pounds in the Donn, conceding from three to 10 pounds to his 10 rivals.
“I’m not the type of guy that gets too carried away about the weight,” said Lukas. “I think he might be a bit sharper because he’s had this little break. I think he could lay a little closer. I’m familiar with some of the horses in here, but we’ll run our race regardless. He handles everything well.”
Conventional handicapping wisdom says that Will Take Charge could be vulnerable coming off a 10-week layoff against a group that includes Revolutionary, River Seven, and Lea, all of whom have already won during the meet.
Revolutionary returned from a seven-month layoff to win a one-mile third-level optional $100,000 claiming race by a half-length on Jan. 11. Revolutionary finished well in front of Will Take Charge in their two meetings during last year’s Triple Crown series when third in the Kentucky Derby and fifth in the Belmont Stakes.
“I’m really pleased with the way he ran in his comeback race and glad he got a race over the track,” said Todd Pletcher, Revolutionary’s six-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer. “He seemed to like it and he’s trained well since then. Any time you sign up for a Grade 1 you anticipate it’s going to be a tough race, and with Will Take Charge here, it’s certainly getting the season started in a big way. But in Revolutionary you’re talking about a horse who won the Louisiana Derby, was third in the Kentucky Derby, and had a good comeback race.”
The versatile River Seven has never been better and will make his Grade 1 debut riding a three-race win streak that includes a victory on turf in the Grade 3 Commonwealth and a track-record-setting performance here on dirt in the Harlan’s Holiday Stakes.
River Seven hasn’t raced since that four-length victory in the Dec. 22 Harlan’s Holiday.
“It’s always a concern for me having 47 days in between races,” said Nick Gonzalez, who trains River Seven for the Tucci Stables. “And you also worry he might have peaked and gone over the top after he ran that tremendous race in the Harlan’s Holiday.”
Gonzalez said jockey Joe Rocco Jr. told him after the Harlan’s Holiday “that when he pushed the button over there at the three-eighths pole, he just couldn’t believe how he took off, and also said he had another gear or two left if he’d needed it.”
“He’s doing great, training well, and I can’t wait to get him over there,” Gonzalez said.
Like River Seven, Lea had been most effective on turf and synthetic surfaces before earning his ticket into the Donn with a convincing 3 1/4-length victory in the Grade 3 Hal’s Hope going a mile on the main track here last month. The start was the first for Lea since being transferred to trainer Bill Mott’s barn late last season.
“It didn’t surprise me that he handled dirt, but there’s always a question of whether they’ll do it in top company,” said Mott. “This race is a new test because it’s nine furlongs instead of a mile, and I’m just hoping he handles that extra furlong well.”
Saez rode Lea in the Hal’s Hope, but Joel Rosario has the riding assignment on Sunday.
Completing the field are Bourbon Courage, who finished third as the favorite in the Hal’s Hope, multiple graded stakes winners Neck n Neck and Uncaptured, Romansh, Viramundo, Macho Bull, and Joshua’s Comprise.