Arkansas native Willis Horton is no stranger to success in horse racing. The 76-year-old businessman’s familiar black and white silks with the distinctive “H” in a black ball emblazoned on the front have adorned several well-known jockeys aboard his runners on the national racing stage throughout the years, including 2006 Kentucky Oaks (GI) winner Lemons Forever, Grade 1 winner and champion Take Charge Brandi and Grade 1 winner Will Take Charge. He’s even been represented by a pair of starters in the Kentucky Derby (GI) so far with Will Take Charge, who was eighth in 2013, and Combatant, who was 18th a year ago.
This year, however, the custom homebuilder may actually have his best shot for one of his runners to wear the garland of roses in the Churchill Downs winner’s circle with his very own homebred, Long Range Toddy. Horton has always said his two biggest dreams in racing are to win the Arkansas Derby (GI) and the Kentucky Derby, and while watching one of his runners capture Oaklawn Park’s major prep will have to wait for another year, his Derby dream could very well become a reality in just more than a week’s time.
“This is a great deal for me, really special,” Horton said. “It makes it so much more special because this is one I raised, he’s a homebred.”
Long Range Toddy is a dark bay son of Take Charge Indy and the Unbridled’s Song mare Pleasant Song, who also raced in Horton’s silks, though without much fanfare. Take Charge Indy was standing at WinStar Farm at the time and Horton knew the family, as his own Will Take Charge is his half-brother (both are out of the Grade 1-winning Dehere mare Take Charge Lady).
Horton absolutely knew who he was selecting when he picked out the sire for his mare, though Take Charge Indy wasn’t one of the farm’s marquee stallions.
“I looked over a lot of [stallions] before I decided on that one,” Horton said.
Pleasant Song had several foals that were productive, but none were standouts when Horton chose to keep the white-faced foal she produced which came from his stallion choice in 2016. Maybe it was because he chose the stallion himself, or maybe it was because it was the last foal from her he’d breed before deciding to sell Pleasant Song at Keeneland that fall, but something about the colt said he needed to stay. He even gave him a special name.
“He’s always been special,” Horton, who names many of his horses after friends and family members, explained. “He’s named after a family member who got the nickname ‘Long Range Toddy’ because he’s a great shot at long range [when hunting].”
Long Range Toddy, the horse, started off his career quietly at Remington Park in Oklahoma, where he was fourth in his debut before reeling off three straight wins, including the Springboard Mile Stakes. A second and a third in the Smarty Jones Stakes and Southwest Stakes (GIII), respectively — at Horton’s home track of Oaklawn Park — followed before the colt put it all together to win a division of the Rebel Stakes (GII) over the highly regarded California shipper Improbable at odds of more than 8-1. Though he was a dull sixth in the Arkansas Derby (GII) in his final pre-Kentucky Derby start, he came out of the race in good order and had already earned enough points for Louisville, so a decision was made to move on and try the Kentucky Derby.
Jockey Jon Court, who will be the oldest jockey to ride in the Derby in history at age 58 when Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen gives him a leg up on Long Range Toddy, not only carries Horton’s silks, but also the owner’s utmost confidence. Court, who will be supplanting Bobby Baird’s age record of 57 in 1978 (Hall of Famer Bill Shoemaker was 54 when he guided Ferdinand to Kentucky Derby glory in 1986), was Long Range Toddy’s jockey for the first time in the Rebel and he also rode Will Take Charge for Horton in the 2013 Derby.
“I’ve used him many times and he always does an excellent job,” Horton said. “It doesn’t matter how old he is — and I’d sure like it if he won the Derby on my horse.”
Horton said he and his family, which includes Long Range Toddy’s namesake, will arrive in Louisville next Thursday and, in the meantime, he’ll be paying close attention to how his colt is training in under the Twin Spires, thanks to modern technology.
“I can watch him train from home on video now,” Horton said. “It’s very convenient.”
Win or lose, Horton says just to be in Louisville with a talented horse with a legitimate shot to win the Kentucky Derby is any owner’s dream.
“Sometimes it’s hard to believe we’ve made it,” Horton said. “It takes a lot of hard work from a lot of people to bring one to the Derby. I enjoy every minute of all of it.”