In one of the most anticipated runnings of the Travers Stakes in its long and proud history, three obvious colts stand out: Haskell winner Verrazano, Belmont Stakes and Jim Dandy Stakes winner Palace Malice and Kentucky Derby hero Orb. There are six other 3-year-olds entered in the Mid-Summer Derby, but it’s difficult to imagine any of them being good enough to upset those three heavy-hitters.
After much mental angst, I’m going with Verrazano first, Palace Malice second and Orb third.
Verrazano was my Kentucky Derby pick, and as soon as it became apparent that the Run for the Roses would be contested on a sloppy track, I was concerned. I didn’t know whether or not he’d handle the wet surface, and he did not handle it well, checking in at 14th in the field of 20. It remains the only loss of his career.
Off that disappointing performance, trainer Todd Pletcher threw out the final two legs of the Triple Crown for a summer and fall campaign that could put Verrazano on the top of the 3-year-old division. In his first start back, the Grade III Pegasus, Verrazano aired by 91⁄4 lengths. But Itsmyluckyday was pulled up when he was injured during the race. With only three other horses in the Pegasus, Verrazano’s victory meant little.
That meant Verrazano’s performance in the Grade I Haskell would be crucial. He won by 9 3⁄4 lengths on an extremely deep track at a mile and an eighth. He quickly drew away from the field in the stretch, suggesting that stretching out to the Travers’ mile-and-a-quarter distance is in his scope. Yet, Preakness Stakes winner Oxbow came out of the Haskell with an injury which ended his 3-year-old season. It’s unknown if the injury compromised his chances during the race.
Regardless, the Pegasus and the Haskell were awesome performances by Verrazano. I’m aching to know whether or not a dry track would have altered Verrazano’s poor performance in the Derby. The Travers gives Verrazano the opportunity at the same distance as the Derby to prove he is the best horse in his division, an opportunity I expect him to seize. I would have preferred that Verrazano drew outside the speed horse Moreno, but Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez has that extremely long straightaway heading into the clubhouse turn to get off the inside.
I had Palace Malice, Verrazano’s uncoupled stablemate in trainer Todd Pletcher’s barn, in the Jim Dandy, and he performed superbly for his second straight win following the Belmont Stakes. He did draw outside of Moreno and should be able to secure a perfect stalking position on Moreno’s outside. The one advantage Palace Malice has over Verrazano is a 2-for-2 Saratoga record. The Travers will be Verrazano’s first race here. If Palace Malice wins, I’ll celebrate for his owner, Cot Campbell of Dogwood Stables, who has done so much for this sport he loves.
When Orb strung together five consecutive victories culminating in his scintillating victory in the Kentucky Derby, it seemed like he had a great chance at the Triple Crown. Instead, he finished a dull fourth in the Preakness and a non-threatening third in the Belmont. Freshened by Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, Orb seems to be doing well. If either or both Pletcher horses wind up in a speed duel with Moreno, he’ll get a perfect set-up. In his career debut at Saratoga, Orb finished a close third. It could happen again.
The rest of the field, in order of preference:
Will Take Charge — The colt trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas showed no ill effects from finishing eighth, seventh and 10th in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, respectively, when he closed strongly to finish second by a length to Palace Malice in the Jim Dandy. Much earlier this year,
Lukas thought he had two legitimate Triple Crown contenders in Oxbow and Will Take Charge. Oxbow backed up Lukas by winning the Preakness and finished second in the Belmont. This afternoon, Will Take Charge has a chance to step into the spotlight.
Moreno — His front-running third in the Jim Dandy was a solid effort. He’s likely to get loose on the lead in the Travers, but whether or not he can last a mile and a quarter is a considerable concern.
Golden Soul — He was second in the Kentucky Derby, then ninth in the Belmont and seventh in the Haskell. He is only 1-for-8 in his career, suggesting that the sloppy track in the Derby moved him forward in a major way. If it starts raining, his chances go up and his odds go down, but any way you slice it, he’s a long shot.
Transparent — He won the Curlin Stakes here by two lengths, but was disqualified. Still, that was the best performance of his career. He’ll have to make a huge leap up to impact the Travers.
Romansh — The colt on the rail was making just his fourth career start in the Curlin. He raced well to finish second, then was placed first on Transparent’s disqualification. He, too, is moving way up in class today.
War Dancer — Kenny McPeek’s colt certainly has class. He won the Grade II Virginia Derby on grass at this mile-and-a-quarter distance. However, in his only start on dirt, he was fourth by six lengths in a maiden race at Gulfstream Park. He’s tough to endorse.