Will Take Charge is an anachronism. After a Triple Crown campaign and the demanding prelude that involves, most 3-year-olds are spent. But Will Take Charge has thrived and improved. The big strong colt might have needed a little time to figure out the meaning of all this running in circles, but even when he struggled, finishing far back at Churchill and Pimlico and Belmont, he still looked the part, still looked like he could be special; and even while running in spurts, as he seemed inclined to do, unable as he was to keep his huge stride out of trouble, he always suggested that beneath the inconsistency there resided a rare talent: Yes, he was going to shine, or so he seemed to imply, whenever this talent got the burnishing that only experience can provide.
And so now, after nine races this year, while "getting better" all the time, as Lukas pointed out, Will Take Charge appears to be moving towards a peak effort at Santa Anita on Nov. 2. The colt's last three races -- a runner-up finish in the Jim Dandy and his victory in the Travers preceding the Pennsylvania Derby - have been outstanding. With his most recent efforts, he has become a candidate for championship honors, and, of course, he has become one of the top contenders for the Breeders' Cup Classic, as measured by the ESPN.com poll.
Fort Larned, for example, will race Saturday at Churchill Downs in the inaugural running of the $175,000 Homecoming Classic. But what's to be made of that? The winner of last year's Classic was expected for Saturday's $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont. But he's staying home to run for a fraction of the money. Is that because home is so sweet, so comfortable and so desirable that it's worth more than the $825,000 difference in purse money? Could any home be so sweet? Or is it because Fort Larned, who has had an eventful and inconsistent season, isn't quite the horse he was a year ago and because the Homecoming represents a relatively easy spot?
And will Kentucky Derby winner Orb and Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice step up to compete with their elders? Can Cross Traffic, who has been sensational in his brief career, carry his speed 1 ¼ miles? And if Royal Delta gallops home as an easy winner in Saturday's Beldame, will her connections decide there's nothing more to prove and aim her at the Classic? It's a great weekend to be in an interrogative mood.
The Top 10 Breeders' Cup Classic Contenders
1. Game On Dude
He could be an overwhelming favorite in the Classic. While some older horses have regressed and some all but disappeared, Game On Dude has continued to improve. After the Dude's recent routine half-mile workout, his trainer, Bob Baffert, said the veteran gelding is "doing great."
2. Cross Traffic
Cross Traffic, his trainer pointed out, has accomplished much in a short time, winning the Whitney in only the fifth start of his career. If not for a head and a nose, he'd be undefeated, and the accolades piled high. But can he possibly succeed against such experienced veterans as Flat Out and Ron The Greek, and can he be as effective at 1 ¼ miles? If he wins Saturday, he'll be a solid second-choice for the Classic.
3. Royal Delta
Taking on Princess of Sylmar, the most accomplished 3-year-old filly in the country, in Saturday's Beldame Stakes, Royal Delta could virtually clinch another Eclipse Award. But would that mean she'll be ready to take on males in the Classic?
The Kentucky Derby winner reportedly has continued to thrive at Fair Hill since the Travers. He'll take on older horses for the first time Saturday. But he'll need to step forward if he's to succeed.
5. Palace Malice
Like Will Take Charge, Palace Malice has improved steadily this year despite some troubled journeys and spotty performances. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, said there's a reasonable argument to be made that Palace Malice was best in the Travers, where he finished fourth after a nightmarish trip. And, Pletcher said, Palace Malice has continued to mature and develop since then. He'll take on his elders Saturday, on the track where he scored his biggest victory.
6. Fort Larned
His trainer, Ian Wilkes, insists that Fort Larned remains as good as he was a year ago. Maybe, but even if that's true, almost nothing, with the exception of the Stephen Foster, has gone right for Fort Larned this season.
7. Flat Out
Third in last year's Classic, Flat Out impressed while winning the Suburban and again while finishing second in the Woodward. And he loves Belmont Park, where he has won five of his six outings. He's the one to beat in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
8. Will Take Charge
Game On Dude prefers to run on the early lead. Cross Traffic is a speedster. Graydar, Paynter and Mucho Macho Man also have good early speed, as does Alpha. Could a speed-soaked pace in the Breeders' Cup Classic set the table for a big, late-running colt with a venerable Hall of Fame trainer?
9T. Wise Dan
The reigning Horse of the Year set a course record while winning the Woodbine Mile, and when it comes to his specialty, he appears to be untouchable. So why should he do anything else? He's aiming for a repeat victory in the Breeders' Cup Mile.
9T. Successful Dan
Successful Dan, whose little brother is the reigning Horse of the Year, might get the rest of the year off, according to his trainer. Charles LoPresti explained that he hasn't been pleased with how Successful Dan has been training since he finished third in the Woodward.
Also receiving votes: Declaration of War (17), Mucho Macho Man (16), Alpha (11), Paynter (7), Ron The Greek (7), Clubhouse Ride (6), Point of Entry (4), Departing (4), Kettle Corn (3), Graydar (3), Moreno (1).