SARATOGA SPRINGS — The 144th running of the $1 million Grade 1 Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course is setting up to be one for the ages.
The race will feature the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes and Haskell Invitational winners vying for top 3-year-old colt divisional honors. While we will have to wait another year for the three Triple Crown winners to face off, this year’s Haskell winner, Verrazano, is a perfectly good substitute after his dominant win at Monmouth late last month. The last time the three Triple Crown race winners squared off against each other in the Travers was in 1982.
The Preakness winner, Oxbow, was sent back to Calumet Farm in Kentucky earlier this week after suffering an ankle injury in the Haskell and will likely not race again and enter the stallion business next year. Oxbow’s trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, will send out Will Take Charge instead, the second place finisher in last month’s Grade 2 Jim Dandy. Amazingly, it will be Lukas’ first Travers starter since 2002.
The “Mid-Summer Derby” will be televised nationally this afternoon (Ch.2, 4:30 p.m.) along with the Grade 1 King’s Bishop. The Travers will mark the return of Kentucky Derby winner Orb (4-1), who was rested after his third-place finish in the Belmont Stakes. Orb was sent to the Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland after the Belmont to recuperate from the grueling toll that the Triple Crown can take on a young 3-year-old colt.
While at Fair Hill, Orb spent time in a hyperbaric chamber and on an aqua tread mill, in addition to undergoing cold water spa treatments as part of his rehabilitation campaign after the Triple Crown. Trainer Shug McGaughey feels the time off will benefit the son of Malibu Moon.
“Obviously, we’re in the race to win, but if we get a really solid effort then that would be fine, too,” McGaughey said. “I think he’ll be awful tough.”
While the Derby winner was resting, the Belmont and Haskell winners were busy winning impressively for trainer points leader Todd Pletcher.
Palace Malice (5-2), the Belmont winner, has trained impressively since winning the Jim Dandy on July 27 at the Spa and breezed an impressive half-mile of 48.21 seconds on Sunday morning. He has the benefit over the other two with a win over the surface during the current year and will look to use that advantage this afternoon.
“Palace Malice is feeling good,” Pletcher said of the son of Curlin. “He’s feeling great, actually, so we were happy to get him on the track. He seems to be thriving. The more he does, the better he gets. With both horses, it’s rare that you go through these Triple Crown prep series, run in the Derby – and in Palace Malice’s case, the Belmont – and seem to get bigger and stronger and better as you’re doing it. I think the key to the really good ones is they’re able to withstand those types of campaigns and flourish while doing it.”
Verrazano (2-1 morning line favorite), off his disappointing finish in the Derby, was rested until the start of summer racing and has won two straight stakes at Monmouth, including the dazzling 9¾-length victory in the Haskell, the meet’s signature race. Questions still linger about Verrazano’s Derby performance at the same 1¼-mile distance run as the Travers, but Pletcher is quick to dispel those notions.
“With the way the racetrack came up that day in the Haskell, I think any horse that could handle a mile and an eighth and finish up as strongly as he did that day can handle a mile and a quarter at Saratoga,” Pletcher said of Verrazano. “That was a very deep, demanding track that day. I think a mile and a quarter shouldn’t be an issue.”
Both Pletcher horses will have Hall of Famers in the saddle, with Mike Smith riding Palace Malice and John Velazquez in the irons on Verrazano.
McGaughey knows that Orb, who will be ridden by Joel Rosario, is up against it versus the Pletcher duo.
“They’re the proven horses,” said McGaughey of Pletcher’s pair. “Palace Malice won the Belmont and came back and ran a big race in the Jim Dandy. Verrazano has been a ‘now’ horse since he ran the first time. The only blemish he has on his record is in the Derby, and he has come back and run two solid races down at Monmouth, so I would have to think he’s going to be very tough, too.”
Pletcher has been having such a superb meet at Saratoga this summer that some of his competition has resorted to voodoo dolls. Trainer Eric Guillot, who enters Moreno (12-1), winner of the Dwyer Stakes and third-place finisher in the Jim Dandy, has gone to his native Louisiana roots to try to overcome the Pletcher magic at the Spa.
He’s created a voodoo doll that looks like the well-coiffed trainer and another for Palace Malice, in addition to looking to make one for Verrazano. Earlier in the week he was showing members of the press pictures of the dolls on his cell phone.
While it’s all in good jest, Pletcher has been nearly unbeatable in the major races at the Spa and whatever pins Guillot brings on Travers Day, they had better be big ones and plenty sharp.
We’re going with the horse that seems to be peaking at just the right time in Palace Malice. Verrazano gets a pass for his effort in the slop at Churchill and look for him to redeem himself here against these major foes.
Will Take Charge (10-1) has had plenty of excuses through the Triple Crown series so don’t count him out here. Let’s give Orb a race before jumping back on his bandwagon.
Post Time Outlook, Travers
1- Palace Malice
2 - Verrazano
3 - Will Take Charge
4 - Orb.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.