Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Orb makes his return in Saturday’s Travers Stakes (G1) at Saratoga against Verrazano, Palice Malice and six others in a stellar renewal of the prestigious race.
With championship implications, the Travers brings together a competitive and accomplished cast. The centerpiece of the summer meet at Saratoga, the Travers will be run for the 144th time and is one of the oldest stakes for 3-year-olds in the country.
The Travers highlights a 14-race card that kicks off with a special first-race post time of 11:35 a.m. and also features the Grade 1, $500,000 Foxwoods King’s Bishop, the Grade 1, $500,000 Test and the Grade 2, $250,000 Ketel One Ballston Spa.
NBC will provide live coverage of the Foxwoods King’s Bishop and Travers from 4:30 to 6 p.m.
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who won the Travers in 2005 with Flower Alley and 2011 with Stay Thirsty, takes aim at his third victory with both Verrazano and Palace Malice. Verrazano has won six of seven career starts, his past two by 19 combined lengths, most recently taking the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on July 28.
Owned by Let’s Go Stable, Michael Tabor, Mrs. John Magnier and Derrick Smith, Verrazano was installed as the 2-1 program favorite by NYRA oddsmaker Eric Donovan, given a slight edge over Dogwood Stable’s Palace Malice, the 5-2 second choice.
“You always try to do what’s best for each individual horse and each individual owner, and I think the Travers is the right race for both horses,” Pletcher said. “It’s kind of as simple as that. I’m as interested to see it as everyone else. They’re two horses that are doing unbelievably well and coming off really, really good races. It’s going to be interesting. I think it’s going to be a fun race to watch. It’s shaping up to be a great Travers.”
Verrazano’s only try at the Travers distance came in the Kentucky Derby, where he finished 14th of 19 over a sloppy, sealed track. Winner of the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby and Grade 1 Wood Memorial, he rebounded to take the Grade 3 Pegasus at Monmouth before his 9 ¾-length romp in the Haskell.
“I thought [distance concerns] existed [for other people] until he won the Haskell the way he did,” Pletcher said. “The track was very demanding that day, probably the slowest Monmouth track I had ever seen. For him to draw away like he did at the end of a mile and an eighth, to me, put away any concerns about that.”
John Velazquez will ride Verrazano from post position No. 3.
A maiden winner at Saratoga last summer, Palace Malice scored his first stakes victory in the 1 ½-mile Belmont on June 8, beating both Orb and Preakness winner Oxbow, and followed up with a professional one-length victory in the Spa’s hometown Travers prep, the 1 1/8-mile Grade 2 Jim Dandy on July 28. He faded to 12th after setting a wicked pace in the Kentucky Derby.
“It seems like in the period of time from the Kentucky Derby to the Belmont that he kind of stepped his game up another notch,” Pletcher said. “For whatever reason, he’s become a little more professional and learned to put himself in a good position and deliver that closing punch. I guess you could say it all came together after the Derby, but his talent’s always been there.”
Looking to join 1969 Horse of the Year Arts and Letters as the only horses to win the Belmont, Jim Dandy and Travers, Palace Malice will break from post position 8 with Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith aboard.
Trained by Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey for Stuart Janney, III and the Phipps Stable, Orb ran his win streak to five in the Kentucky Derby, where he trailed by nearly 18 lengths before rallying to hit the wire 2 ½ lengths in front of Golden Soul.
Fourth in the Preakness and third in the Belmont, Orb spent nine weeks at the Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland before arriving in Saratoga on August 11. Favored in all three Triple Crown races, the Malibu Moon colt is the 4-1 third choice on the morning line for the Travers.
“Just his walk and his appearance and the way he’s been acting has all been reminiscent of what was going on over the winter. I think the time off after the Belmont has helped him,” McGaughey said. “I’m looking forward to the Travers. I think it’s a great race. I’m looking forward to running Orb, and I think you’ll see him run a very good race.”
Orb will be the first Kentucky Derby winner to run in the Travers since Super Saver was 10th in 2010. Super Saver’s loss snapped a three-race win streak by the previous Derby winners in the Travers – Sea Hero (1993), Thunder Gulch (1995) and Street Sense (2007).
“I’d like to get him back on the right track so we can have a positive fall with him,” said McGaughey. “Obviously, we’re in the race to win, but if we get a really good, solid effort, that would be fine, too, just so we can move on. But, I think he’ll be awful tough.”
Joel Rosario, up for three of Orb’s five career wins, including the Derby, will be in the irons again from post position No. 2.
Breaking from the middle of the field in post 5 will be Will Take Charge, trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas for owner Willis D. Horton. Along with Orb and injured stablemate Oxbow, Will Take Charge is one of three horses to compete in all three Triple Crown races.
The son of Unbridled’s Song ran into traffic trouble in the Kentucky Derby and wound up eighth. He finished seventh in the Preakness and 10th in the Belmont before rebounding to come within a length of winner Palace Malice in the Jim Dandy, finishing second.
“I really thought he would get one of the Classics, but it just wasn’t meant to be,” Lukas said. “We get a second chance here with the Travers, so we’ll see what happens. He’s had a good month since the Jim Dandy, a very good month. He was a little immature through the whole Triple Crown. I like what I see now, so maybe we’re just finding out about him. I look for a big effort.”
New rider Luis Saez will make his Travers debut on Will Take Charge, 10-1 on the morning line.
Since needing 10 races to break his maiden, which came on the Belmont Stakes undercard on June 8, Moreno was a gate-to-wire winner of the Grade 2 Dwyer and set the pace through six furlongs of the Jim Dandy before giving way and finishing a decisive third. Jose Ortiz will ride the son of Ghostzapper from post 6.
“My horse is going to have to run faster,” said Eric Guillot, who trains Moreno for Southern Equine Stable. “We’re here to play. We’re here for fun. It’s the Travers. [Owner Michael Moreno] and I, this is what we do. Like I told him the other day, I’m not going to get up at 4:30 seven days a week and not go to the big dance.”
Last year’s Travers produced a dead-heat for first, and both winning trainers are back to defend their title. Kiaran McLaughlin will saddle Transparent, one of two Godolphin Stable-owned horses in the race, while Ken McPeek sends out War Dancer, a Grade 2 winner on grass making just his second start on dirt.
Transparent was a two-length winner of the 1 1/8-mile Curlin at Saratoga on July 26, but was disqualified for interference and placed fifth. The Curlin was the first race in 112 days for Transparent, whose father, Bernardini, won the Travers in 2006 and sired 2011 winner Stay Thirsty and 2012 co-winner Alpha, trained by McLaughlin.
“The [No. 9] post I don’t think is a big deal; the competition is,” McLaughlin said. “The horse is doing well. He’s worked twice since he ran, and we’re ready for him to run a big race. We got the race [and] two works, and we’re ready.”
Listed at 10-1 on the morning line, Transparent will be ridden by Irad Ortiz, Jr.
McPeek shared last year’s Travers victory with Golden Ticket, who went off at 33-1. He returns with War Dancer, who won the Grade 2 Virginia Derby at 1 ¼ miles on July 13 at Colonial Downs in his most recent start. The War Front colt has been off the board once in seven starts, when he was fourth in a Gulfstream Park maiden race in February.
“I think the fact that he’s won at a mile and a quarter is a big deal here,” McPeek said. “Obviously, this race is a lot tougher than last year’s. If you get it done here, it’s a big deal.”
Alan Garcia will be aboard War Dancer, 15-1, from post 7.
The other Godolphin Stable-owned son of Bernardini in the Travers is Romansh, to be ridden by Javier Castellano from post 1. Trained by Tom Albertrani, Romansh finished second in the Curlin to his entrymate but was promoted to first in what was his stakes debut. He has run three previous times this year, including a maiden victory against older horses at Belmont Park on May 25 at 1 1/16 miles.
“The horse has been improving with every start. He has raced only four times, and I have seen a big improvement after every start,” Albertrani said. “I love the way he has been going into this race. He is definitely more focused. I am getting all the right signs. Hopefully, he is just good enough to handle the rest of the field.”