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Thursday, February 6, 2014
Older horses take the stage

By Gary West
Special to ESPN.com

The Triple Crown sanctions wild dreams. They're ok this time of year, irresistible really, like impulse buying at Christmas, with "Jingle Bells" ringing in your ears. And once you surrender to wild dreams, your thoughts soon swirl and skirl in a whirlpool of questions and possibilities.

Will Honor Code overcome his contretemps? Will Shared Belief, aka Joe Frazier, get over his foot issues? Is Cairo Prince as good as he looked in the Holy Bull Stakes, or was he just the only horse that showed up that afternoon? And so it goes: Will Strong Mandate run as well as he has been training at Oaklawn Park, can Bob Baffert replace New Year's Day, with a Hawk perhaps, or will it take an entire Midwestern city, are a New York-bred and a Louisiana-bred really and truly Derby contenders, is Mexikoma lurking and waiting, how many cards is Todd Pletcher holding anyway, and does that include the ones up his sleeve, wouldn't you just love to bet on all the sons of Tapit in a Futures pool, and, finally, while you're thinking about Tapit, has Tap It Rich figured out the meaning of all this circularity?

Half of the top 10 older horses race this weekend, including River Seven, Revolutionary, and Romansh.

Dizzy? This time of year, the Triple Crown horses appropriate all the dreams, most of the attention, and an embarrassingly opulent share of the purse money. Yes, horse racing in February is like Disneyland: It's all about the kids.

But pause just a moment, take a break from Tomorrowland, and let the adults have a moment of calm and contemplation. They deserve at least that: The older horses might be one of the sport's most compelling divisions this year. And so stop the woolgathering and pull your thoughts out of the whirlpool -- even if you take an eye off the questions, they're not going anywhere, not yet -- because two of the best horses in America race this weekend, Will Take Charge and Game On Dude.

And, to reach a little further, half of the top 10 older horses race this weekend, including River Seven, Revolutionary, and Romansh. They'll take on Will Take Charge in Sunday's Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park, a telling race that could be the first chapter in the division's exciting story. (The division of older, or handicap, horses, when referred to in this space, means those older horses racing on the main track, which is, of course, the traditionally understood meaning. Turf horses have their own division.)

"I like the maturity I'm seeing," Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said about Will Take Charge, the champion 3-year-old of 2013. "He's matured both mentally and physically. He's awfully good right now; he's as good as I can get him. I think he's arguably the best horse in training."

In a marvelous transformation that justified his trainer's faith, Will Take Charge finished 2013 by winning three of his final four races. He took the Travers and then the Pennsylvania Derby before losing the Breeders' Cup Classic by a nose to Mucho Macho Man. And, Lukas pointed out, Will Take Charge could have won the Classic with a better trip, would have won if he hadn't had to swing out to the middle of the track to launch his drive. And then, of course, he completed his championship campaign by beating Game On Dude by a head in the Clark Handicap.

And so is Will Take Charge the best horse in training? Maybe. Mucho Macho Man, who won the Sunshine Millions Classic by 14 in his seasonal debut, has an argument. And that's why this division is so intriguing. They're back, both of them, to settle the argument on the track. If Will Take Charge continues his progress and development and if Mucho Macho Man stays healthy, they could both become superstars. And Game On Dude, the venerable veteran who remains the best of the West, returns in Saturday's San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita. They could all meet March 8 in the Santa Anita Handicap.

Several could threaten to join the top trio. And like the 3-year-old division, these older horses can raise some vertigo-inducing questions. Will Departing and Cross Traffic fulfill the potential they flashed last year? Will Goldencents recapture that Santa Anita Derby form? Are Drogue and Fordubai for real? Will Fury Kapcori or Blingo or Blueskiesnrainbows become a threat out West?

For the moment, though, here are the top 10 older horses:

1. Mucho Macho Man: A winner of three straight, the big guy cruised in his seasonal debut. The Santa Anita Handicap could be next.

2. Will Take Charge: Although the Donn's 1 1/8 miles isn't his best distance, he couldn't be doing any better, according to his trainer. He'll be aimed at Grade 1 races, probably at the Santa Anita Handicap after Sunday's race.

3. Game On Dude: He won 10 major stakes over the last two years, but at 7 will he be able to maintain that high level of performance? He returns Saturday, in a prep for the Santa Anita Handicap, which he won last year by nearly eight lengths.

4. Palace Malice: He had some rough racing luck last year, but when circumstances came together for him, he showed his talent, winning the Belmont and the Jim Dandy. Will he step forward at 4? He has had four workouts in Florida preparing for his return.

5. Romansh: When he won the Discovery Handicap by more than nine lengths in November, he hinted at what he's capable of becoming. He'll return Sunday in the Donn.

6. Revolutionary: Winner of the Louisiana Derby, he ran third in the Kentucky Derby and fifth in the Belmont. He seemed more mature and professional when he won his seasonal debut in preparation for the Donn.

7. River Seven: Once regarded as a horse for the turf or a synthetic surface, he won the Harlan's Holiday Stakes by four lengths in a fast clocking for the day. That was his first win on dirt, and it set him up perfectly for the Donn.

8. Long River: He has won three consecutive races, including two minor stakes at Aqueduct. But he has won in style, as if to suggest he's capable of taking on the division leaders. And he might get his chance in the Santa Anita Handicap.

9. Normandy Invasion: Who knows how good he is? He has won only once, raced only six times, been in some tough spots, and encountered some rough luck. But remember the Kentucky Derby? He moved boldly into that lively pace and made the lead at the top of the stretch, holding on until mid-stretch, before fading to fourth. He hasn't raced since. But he has had seven workouts in Florida, the latest a five-eighths move on Sunday.

10. Shakin It Up: The winner of the Malibu and the Strub has developed into a versatile and capable stakes horse. But how far will he go?