Will Take Charge and Palace Malice meet again Aug. 2 in the $1.5 million Whitney Handicap, squaring off at Saratoga Race Course as the top two choices in a field of nine drawn for the 1 ⅛-mile test.
Dogwood Stable's Palace Malice, the Belmont Stakes winner of 2013 who has strung together four straight victories this year, is the even-money favorite for the Whitney from post 5. Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez is in the irons for trainer Todd Pletcher.
The 4-year-old son of Curlin trained by Todd Pletcher comes off a driving one-length win over Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile winner Goldencents in the June 7 Metropolitan Handicap, a one-mile test at Belmont Park.
Will Take Charge, the defending male 3-year-old champion racing for Willis Horton and Three Chimneys Farm, is the 4-1 second choice from the inside post. The 4-year-old Unbridled's Song runner will be reunited with reinsman Luis Saez, who last rode him to victory for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas in the Oaklawn Handicap in April.
Gary Stevens, who has stopped riding to undergo knee surgery, had been aboard Will Take Charge for his past two starts-a sixth in the Alysheba and a runner-up finish in the Stephen Foster Handicap June 14-both at Churchill Downs.
WHITNEY HANDICAP DRAW
"I think we got back too far [in the Stephen Foster]," Lukas said. "Gary said he wasn't getting ahold of the track until [Gary] took ahold of him, then he got his feet underneath him, then he started to run. But he finished up good and he likes Saratoga. We were talking the other day, he might just be one of those horses who likes the fall. I'm optimistic, I think it'll be a great race."
Lukas was not pleased with the draw for Will Take Charge, who does not like to be inside and has run his best races with a sweeping outside move. However, he added, his contender is training exceptionally well.
"I never really have much luck on the rail in any big race, not really in [a race] of this magnitude," Lukas remarked. "[But] I think he has an affinity for this racetrack. I think he's put on weight since we last ran him.
"He's gotten stronger and better. I think that he needs that action. He was in a growth spurt last year. He's matured. You're going to love the look of him when you see him in here. He's quite a horse, and I think he's the best horse in the country right now.
"We have to go out and prove it; prove it a couple of different times, I'm sure, three, four more times to get where we want to get I feel like he's still the champion, and I feel very good about the fact that we all get together on the same racetrack."
The Breeders' Cup Classic, at 1 ¼ miles, seems to be Will Take Charge's optimal distance, and Lukas has him targeting that race again this year. The Whitney is a Breeders' Cup Challenge "Win and You're In" event for the Nov. 1 event at Santa Anita Park.
"We're going to get these 1 ⅛-mile races which will probably lean to the advantage of some of the others, but the ultimate one would be the Breeders' Cup, and that is a mile and a quarter and we've run over that track before," Lukas said. "We don't want to lose any race, but that's the ultimate goal." Palace Malice and Will Take Charge started against each other on four occasions last year. In the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, Will Take Charge finished eighth and Palace Malice was 12th. They next met in the Belmont, with Palace Malice emerging victorious and Will Take Charge tiring to 10th after running seventh in the Preakness, the middle leg of the Triple Crown that Palace Malice skipped.
In the summer, Saratoga proved a dueling ground for the two. Palace Malice defeated Will Take Charge by a length in the Jim Dandy, but ran fourth behind the eventual 3-year-old champ in the Travers after missing the break.
In their final meeting to date, Will Take Charge missed the 1 ¼-mile Breeders' Cup Classic by a nose to Mucho Macho Man, while Palace Malice ran sixth.
"I felt like we let a Travers slip away from us there [last year]," Pletcher said, noting Palace Malice "simply didn't break well, spotted the field and came away last, and the fractions weren't real fast. I thought he ran a great race to almost overcome that.
"He missed the break again in the Breeders' Cup Classic, which I think compromised his chances that day, especially with the way the track was playing at Santa Anita.
"The biggest difference this year is he hasn't made those types of mistakes. We were worried about the Met Mile, drawing the one hole and carrying top weight, and he's just gotten more professional. When you make statements that you think a horse is good and it took him a little while to prove it, there's some added satisfaction for that."
Will Take Charge has seven wins and six seconds from 20 starts, for $3,774,648 in earnings. Palace Malice is the lighter-raced of the two with a 7-4-1 record from 16 outings for earnings of $2,631,135.
Third choice on the Whitney morning line at 6-1 is Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider's Departing, winner of the 2013 West Virginia Derby and Super Derby. The War Front gelding ran third in the Stephen Foster in his second start off a layup for trainer Al Stall Jr. Robby Albarado gets the mount from post 6.
"We think he's a grade I type of horse," Stall said. "The Stephen Foster was his second race in 8 ½ months and his first race around two turns [this year]. He went from just an allowance race into that race. I think he acquitted himself quite well. He had the lead between calls in the stretch, and he got a little heavy right there toward the end. It did knock him down, but I think it built him up a little bit. I think he's ready for a big race in his third off the layoff."
Southern Equine Stable's Moreno, the speed horse of the bunch for trainer Eric Guillot, and Godolphin Racing's Romansh, a multiple Grade 3 winner who finished third in the Metropolitan last time out for trainer Tom Albertrani, are both 10-1 on the morning line. Itsmyluckyday, stepping back to Grade 1 company for the first time since a runner-up finish in the 2013 Preakness for trainer Eddie Plesa Jr., and Grade 2 winner Last Gunfighter from the barn of Chad Brown, are a respective 12-1 and 15-1.