LITTLE ROCK — Four rows in front of Willis Horton, D. Wayne Lukas bid $400,000 on a colt targeted by Horton during a two-day inspection of 300 horses in a sale in Lexington, Ky.
Despite a self-imposed limit of $400,000, Horton went $25,000 higher that September day in 2011.
At that point, Lukas realized the other bidder was a man he had trained for years earlier and bowed out. Horton’s relationship with trainer Dallas Stewart was a bit shaky at the time so Horton turned the son of Unbridled’s Song and his other horses over to Lukas.
"If he can’t run, we need to quit looking at horses and shut our eyes and pick one out," Lukas told Horton.
Now 3, the colt named Will Take Charge has secured one of the 20 spots in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby and Horton is contemplating a unique, no-compete approach to the May 4 race. If Will Take Charge wins on the first Saturday in May, the repercussions could be far-reaching.
Will Take Charge’s last race was a rousing victory in the 1 1-16-mile Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park on March 16. The 50 points earned that day, plus 10 points for winning the Smarty Jones two months earlier, put Will Take Charge at the top of the list of Derby qualifiers.
Horton, 73, is thinking about proceeding to Louisville without running the colt again — a double no-no for Derby historians:
—The last horse to win the Derby without racing beyond 1 1-16 miles was Middleground in 1950. The Arkansas Derby on April 13 and the other six major Derby prep races remaining on the schedule are a minimum of 1 1-8 miles.
—The Rebel was seven weeks prior to the Kentucky Derby. In 2006, Barbaro became the first Derby winner in 50 years to have his final prep five weeks prior. In 2011, Animal Kingdom’s last prep was six weeks out.
Will Take Charge’s attitude will help Horton and Lukas decide this week whether the colt will race April 13 or take a pass until Louisville.
"If I’m footing the bills, I’m going to have a voice," Horton said. "It kind of makes sense to me … to go in there with a fresh horse against these other guys with only three weeks off. I’ve been in the horse business 50 years. You learn a little every time you run a horse."
Horton, a partner in 2006 Kentucky Oaks winner Lemons Forever, also cited the Triple Crown grind — two weeks between the Derby and the Preakness and three weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont.
"That’s the reason we don’t get a Triple Crown winner anymore, too much pressure on these horses," he said.
Lukas has called the approach unconventional, but the four-time winner of the Derby also said he always wanted to train a horse up to the Derby.
When I first read that Horton, who lives in Marshall, once went to Oaklawn on 55 of 56 racing dates, I figured he was residing farther South at the time. After all, Marshall is closer to Harrison than Russellville and Russellville is an hour to Hot Springs. No sir, Horton said, the trip was two hours, 20 minutes, one way.
His younger brother and a couple of friends and a three-car rotation were involved. "Who wasn’t driving could sleep coming or going," he said.
Before hitting the road, Horton was up before daylight, helping feed about 200 cattle. On an occasional weekend, if the cattle operation was ship-shape, the wives would be invited and they would overnight.
Once involved in a company that became the nation’s largest builder of single-family dwellings, Horton and other family members retired when the company went public in 1992.
His excuse for missing that one day of racing long ago? A funeral.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.