Game On Dude and Will Take Charge will make a final appeal to Eclipse Award voters when they square off for a second time this month in Friday's Grade 1, $500,000 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs, the feature on the penultimate program at the Louisville track's Fall Meet.
The favorite to be named Horse of the Year heading into the November 2 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita, Game On Dude botched his chance at earning racing's highest honor with a sub-par ninth-place effort in the 1 1/4-mile fixture. It was a performance similar in impact to his seventh-place try in the 2012 Classic, which also cost the six-year-old gelding a place in the history books as well as divisional honors as the year's leading older male.
Even with a win in the 1 1/8-mile Clark, Game On Dude would still be considered longshot to be named champion older male of 2013 after losing the Classic by 11 lengths to Mucho Macho Man. However, the Bob Baffert trainee's record leading up to the Breeders' Cup had been impeccable, with consecutive wins in the San Antonio, Santa Anita Handicap, Charles Town Classic, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic.
Game On Dude was assigned 126 pounds for the Clark and will break from post 1. In his last trip over the surface, the son of Awesome Again finished second to Drosselmeyer in the 2011 Breeders' Cup Classic.
The three-year-old Will Take Charge will carry 123 pounds, making him the co-highweight on the scale. After a dismal Triple Crown campaign, the D. Wayne Lukas charge roared back to top form over the summer and fall, which coincided with the removal of blinkers from his raceday equipment.
A sharp second in the Jim Dandy in his first start since the classics, Will Take Charge next defeated Kentucky Derby winner Orb and Belmont hero Palace Malice in the Travers. Doubling up in the Pennsylvania Derby next out, the son of Unbridled's Song then fell a jump short of catching Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders' Cup Classic. That effort against older rivals put the chestnut in the discussion for divisional honors, which could be sealed with a win Friday.
"I think he's already sealed (the champion three-year-old male award)," Lukas said. "I would rather take the position that the Clark is a significant race with Grade 1 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.
Golden Ticket, who dead-heated for the win in the 2012 Travers, is the likely third choice in the wagering. Despite having won only the Prairie Meadows Handicap in six stakes appearances this term, the Kenny McPeek trainee was a clear second in both the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill in June and the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita last time.
Prayer for Relief, who was cross-entered in Saturday's Hawthorne Gold Cup, is a multiple Grade 2 winner for owner Ahmed Zayat. The five-year-old ending a lengthy losing skid over the summer, taking the Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap and the Governor's Cup at Remington Park in consecutive starts. He did not fare as well in the September 28 Homecoming Classic at Churchill, finishing more than nine lengths behind Fort Larned.
Bourbon Courage, seeking his first win since the 2012 Super Derby, should improve off a second-place effort to the returning Our Double Play in a 7 1/2-furlong Churchill allowance on October 31. Third by a length in last year's Clark, Bourbon Courage picked up minor checks in the Donn Handicap, New Orleans Handicap and Alysheba during the first half of the season.
"He definitely needed that race last time and came out of it well," trainer Kellyn Gorder said. "He's put in some nice breezes since then...and he's ready to roll. I know we'll play the role of underdog, but that's okay. We're happy with where our horse is and I'm anxious to see him run again."
Grade 3 winner Easter Gift invades from Belmont for trainer Chad Brown. The Hard Spun colt has won three of six starts this season, his biggest win coming in the $230,000 Mountainview Handicap at Penn National in June.
The Clark field is rounded out by the turf/synthetic performer Finnegans Wake and Jaguar Paw, who captured an overnight stakes at Belmont and finished third in the Philip H. Iselin at Monmouth over the summer.