Waiting for someone to truly take charge

August, 25, 2013

Saying the $1 million Travers Stakes produced a winner whose name was rather fitting would be a seemingly astute observation.

Will Take Charge captured the Midsummer Derby at Saratoga by a nose on Saturday and some might reasonably conclude that in the process he took charge of the race for the 3-year-old championship.

Unfortunately he didn't.

Instead of instilling some much-needed clarity into the chase, the Travers only muddied the waters some more, and even injected the dreaded would have, could have, should have factor into the equation.

"I think [the Travers] muddles it a little bit," D. Wayne Lukas, who trains Will Take Charge, said on Sunday.

A little bit?

That's putting it mildly.

In a year awash in parity, there are basically five contenders for the 3-year-old crown and the first to be eliminated is Preakness winner Oxbow, who suffered an injury in the Preakness and may not race again this year.

Verrazano won the Haskell and Wood Memorial and is probably the best miler of the bunch, but a seventh-place finish as the 8-5 favorite in the Travers and a 14th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby expose him as a pretender at a classic distance. Since the Eclipse Awards started in 1971, every 3-year-old champion has won at least one race longer than a mile and an eighth and that type of victory is lacking from Verrazano's resume.

By winning the Travers in the final stride over 31-1 shot Moreno, Will Take Charge has become the new "now" horse. Yet as much as he might be peaking, Will Take Charge's resume is still on the light side. Aside from the Travers, his wins have come in the Grade 2 Rebel and the ungraded Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park, none of which were expected. He was sent off at 9-1 in the Travers and was 28-1 in the Rebel and 12-1 in the Smarty Jones, odds that seldom reflect a champion in a division as contentious as this year's 3-year-old male grouping.

By winning the Travers in the final stride over 31-1 shot Moreno, Will Take Charge has become the new "now" horse.

He was second to Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice in his previous race, the Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga, but was unplaced in all three legs of the Triple Crown, finishing no better than seventh in any of them. A big effort against his elders should change that perception, but for now he's no better than third-best.

Immediately after the Kentucky Derby, Orb seemed a cinch for the crown. The Derby was his fourth straight win in 2013 (fifth overall), and the streak included the Grade 1 Florida Derby and Grade 2 Fountain of Youth.

Yet Orb has done nothing but disappoint since then, finishing fourth in the Preakness, third in the Belmont and third in the Travers.

Yet in a year in which the five biggest 3-year-old races have been won by five different horses, someone might believe his overall record remains the best.

Plus, in head-to-matchups, the Shug McGaughey-trained colt has an edge over his main rivals. He's now finished in front of Palace Malice twice in their three meetings; has a 3-1 edge over Will Take Charge; and a 2-0 mark against Verrazano. Only Oxbow, who was 2-1 versus Orb, had the upper hand on him.

Since the Travers was Orb's first race in 11 weeks, it's natural to believe he should be even more formidable in his next few races. The problem with that notion is that if he faces older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup or Breeders' Cup Classic, he'll also be tackling much better competition.

"Now that we've got a good, solid race under his belt, we've got all last winter and spring's stuff behind us," McGaughey said on Sunday. "I think we can really move forward now. I'm going to look at the Gold Cup. That's not to say the Pennsylvania Derby or the Indiana Derby or something is completely out of the picture, but I think we want to go to the Gold Cup."

Yet in the final analysis, the lasting image of the Travers is that the best horse in the field was probably Palace Malice, who was fourth. He stumbled at the start, which prevented him from chasing the pace, like he normally does. Instead he was last in a field of nine after the opening quarter-mile.

Turning for home, he was forced to rally five wide, losing considerable ground.

Nevertheless, he was gaining on his rivals in the final furlong, and even though he wound up fourth for trainer Todd Pletcher, he was just a nose behind Orb and less than a length behind the victorious Will Take Charge.

Considering the poor start and the moderate fractions he had to close into, Palace Malice quite easily could have won the Travers with a clean trip. He probably should have won the race, but titles are never won on a "should have."

"We weren't planning on being last going into the first turn behind a dawdling pace," Pletcher said. "I thought he had a winning race in him. Unfortunately, the start did not go well. Once that happened we were in a completely different spot than we anticipated being. Unfortunately, he came up a length short. For a number of reasons, the bad start was compromising. When you tack on the fact they didn't go very fast up front, I thought he ran a great race, considering all that."

Great race or not, right now we have a year in which the five biggest 3-year-old races -- the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, Haskell and Travers -- were won by five different horses, and the crown will most likely go to the one who registers the strongest efforts in the upcoming classics against older foes.

Perhaps someday someone will indeed take charge of the 3-year-old division. Yes, perhaps, but only perhaps.

• 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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