It was supposed to be 1982 all over again.
It turned into 1995, instead.
Anticipation was high for a Travers Stakes with three distinct Triple Crown race winners running against each other, but that delicious scenario dissolved when Preakness winner Oxbow was pulled with an ankle injury 21⁄2 weeks ago.
Will Take Charge proved to be an able stand-in for his stablemate, though, by winning the 144th Travers by a nose in a very close photo finish over 31-1 Moreno before 47,597 under pure blue skies at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday.
That rang a bell for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who had to scratch Preakness winner Timber Country because of a high temperature the night before the 1995 Travers, only to watch stablemate Thunder Gulch win the race on his way to the 3-year-old championship.
“We went down and looked at that little Thunder Gulch and said, ‘Ball is in your court, here you go,’ ” Lukas said. “That’s kind of what happened this time. We sent Oxbow home for some freshening and cranked this one out.”
Jim Dandy third-place finisher Moreno proved to be more than a worthy contender while trying to win the $1 million Travers on the front end, chased by Kentucky Derby winner Orb, Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice and 3-2 post-time favorite Verrazano, the Haskell winner.
Will Take Charge closed well to get within a length of Palace Malice for second in the Jim Dandy, and the extra furlong of the mile-and-a-quarter Travers was just enough for Will Take Charge to get his nose in front of Moreno in the final stride.
“Yeah, I didn’t know if I had won,” said Luis Saez, Will Take Charge’s fourth different rider in his last four races. “When I was coming to the wire, I thought I could win it, maybe, if I rode a little harder. So I did, and then when I crossed the wire, I didn’t know. I had to ask the outrider, and he told me I won.”
“Brutal, huh? Last jump,” said Eric Guillot, Moreno’s trainer.
Willis Horton’s Will Take Charge, who ran in all three Triple Crown races with nothing better than a seventh, 16 lengths behind Oxbow in the Preakness, to show for it, went off at 9-1 and led off a $5,098.00 superfecta on a day when the ninth-largest crowd in Travers history wagered almost a quarter of the $41,363,760 all-sources betting handle, the first time Saratoga has surpassed $40 million.
Most of the Travers money went in the direction of Verrazano and Palace Malice, the formidable pair of colts from the barn of Todd Pletcher.
Runaway Groom beat Gato Del Sol, Aloma’s Ruler and Conquistador Cielo in the 1982 Travers, the only time in history that three Triple Crown race winners have been beaten in the same race.
Despite the loss of Oxbow, the 2013 Travers still had plenty of star power and intrigue, especially since Verrazano was beginning to show signs of being perhaps the best of this year’s 3-year-old crop.
Will Take Charge appeared to
have a few things going against him, not the least of which was a jockey switch to Saez, who had never won a Grade I race, from Jim Dandy rider Junior Alvarado.
“You look terrible if it doesn’t work, but it’s sweet if it does,” Lukas said.
The other significant jockey change in the Travers was Jose Lezcano on Orb.
Joel Rosario was supposed to ride, but a broken left foot suffered on Friday wiped out not only a big weekend in which he was supposed to ride Game On Dude in the Pacific Classic today, but the next six weeks of work for him.
Guillot promised that Moreno would be on the lead, just as he was in a gritty Jim Dandy effort, and Jose Ortiz made good on that, getting Moreno through ideal splits of 24.40 for the first quarter-mile, 48.88 for the half and 1:13.43 for six furlongs.
While tracking in fourth and fifth, Saez stayed in close enough contact with Moreno to have a shot to catch him. Barely.
As Moreno came off the second turn, Orb cut the corner inside and took a slim lead and appeared to be in perfect position to go up the rail and win.
Moreno didn’t falter, though, and regained the lead about six strides from the wire.
Meanwhile, Will Take Charge angled slightly toward the middle of the track from behind them and just caught Moreno as Orb finished three-quarters of a length back in third.
“Who wouldn’t have wanted to win on this day, on this stage?” Guillot said. “Like I say, you’ve got to pay the piper for all the stuff I talk, right? But I backed it up pretty damn good running second at 30-1 in the Travers, right? You can look at it both ways.”
“At this time of the year, when horses have had hard campaigns, these races are special,” Lukas said. “There has never been a bad Travers. But they don’t put up a million bucks on a Grade I and just hand it to you. You better get on your belly and have a horse ready, or you’re not going to win one of these.”
Pletcher’s pair had trouble starting and finishing.
Jockey Mike Smith said Palace Malice, who was fourth, essentially lost the race when he broke flat-footed.
“All I could do is sit back there, creep up, creep up, creep up and see if I could get him there,” he said. “It was just too much to make up.”
Jockey John Velazquez said Verrazano had a good trip, but by the half-mile pole, “he just went through the motions. He really didn’t put in much effort.”
“I thought Verrazano got a beautiful trip,” Pletcher said. “The only difference was we thought he’d be stalking Palace Malice, who, Mike said, missed the break. Mike thought he was much the best, but his break killed him.
“It’s horse racing. It happens every day, every race — 14 times a day, sometimes. We’ve had a great meet, and we’re not going to cry about it.”