The Travers could end the debate

August, 21, 2013

The eighth month of 2013 is past its midway point and affixing the term "leader" to any colt in the 3-year-old division can still generate more debate than one of Rush Limbaugh's radio shows.

If you read Mike Watchmaker's "Watchmaker's Watch" in the Daily Racing Form, you'll find Kentucky Derby/Florida Derby/Fountain of Youth winner Orb on top, followed by Verrazano and Palace Malice. In a July 28 blog post, The Form's national handicapper went as far as to declare the notion that Palace Malice might be the leader or even the co-leader with Orb was "ridiculous."

Of the three leading 3-year-olds, Orb is clearly the one lacking in the "what have you done for me lately" category.

Well, there must be plenty of "ridiculous" people out there because in this week's National Thoroughbred Racing Association Top 10 poll, Verrazano, the Haskell winner, was the highest-ranked 3-year-old on the list. Unplaced in the Kentucky Derby -- his lone Triple Crown appearance -- Verrazano was sixth and the only 3-year-old to receive one of the 46 first-place votes.

Palace Malice, winner of the Jim Dandy and Belmont Stakes in his past two starts, was seventh.


He failed to crack the top 10, finishing 12th in points.


Maybe. Or maybe not.

Of the three leading 3-year-olds, Orb is clearly the one lacking in the "what have you done for me lately" category.

Since Kentucky Derby Day, when Orb's romp in the slop ignited dreams of a Triple Crown sweep, the Shug McGaughey-trained colt has been disappointing. He was fourth in the Preakness and then a no-factor third behind Palace Malice in the Belmont.

On Saturday, all of that could change and a true division leader could emerge when Orb, Verrazano and Palace Malice, plus several other talented 3-year-olds, tangle in the $1 million Travers at Saratoga. Barring an unfathomable upset, the renowned Mid-Summer Derby could crown the division champ or at the very least paint someone as a clear-cut leader heading into the fall classics.

Of the many variables, the question of which Orb shows up promises to play a major role in deciding the outcome. Orb looked like a tired horse in the final two legs of the Triple Crown, prompting McGaughey to send his Derby winner to Fair Hill for some rest, relaxation and rejuvenation.

What McGaughey says he's seen of late in Orb is not the old Orb but a better-than-ever Orb, who's fit and ready for the mile-and-a-quarter Travers even without the benefit of a race in 11 weeks.


He left us a horse, he came back a man-horse. There's a different look to him.

" -- Shug McGaughey, Orb's trainer
"He left us a horse, he came back a man-horse. There's a different look to him," McGaughey said during an NTRA teleconference Tuesday, one day after Orb put in a 47.68 seconds drill at the Saratoga training track that was the fastest of 31 works at the distance. "Fitness will not be a problem. He's very sharp. All systems are go. I think our experiment at Fair Hill worked out to our advantage. I think we have a much better horse now than earlier in the year.

"We have the best horse."

Considering the colt, owned by Ogden Mills Phipps and Stuart S. Janney III, was good enough to win the Run for the Roses earlier in the year, that's a powerful statement and one that sets the stage for a lively duel with formidable rivals who have also blossomed since spring.

On Derby Day, Palace Malice set a ridiculously fast pace and faded to 12th. Since then, his wins in the Jim Dandy at the Spa and the Belmont Stakes have elevated him to the upper echelon in the division.

Verrazano had an even worse day, chasing those fractions and folding up to 14th in a surprisingly weak effort. In his seven career starts, that was Verrazano's lone defeat. Since then, dominant wins in the $1 Million Haskell and the Grade 3 Pegasus Stakes indicate the mud, not the 10-furlong distance, may have been the colt's anchor. The Travers should provide some resolution to the questions about his distance capabilities and paint a picture as to who's truly the leader of the 3-year-old pack.

McGaughey, for his part, knows which poll he supports.

"I haven't seen the [NTRA poll] but they're the now horses and we've been gone," McGaughey said. "I don't think it's right, but that's their assessment [to put Verrazano and Palace Malice ahead of Orb]. I hope we can turn it around."

If he does, it should put an end to the debate.

It would be ridiculous to think otherwise.

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.



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