‘Graveyard of Champions’ Strikes Again: Will Take Charge Takes Travers
A determined Will Take Charge wore down stubborn pacesetter Moreno in the final sixteenth of a mile and hit the wire a nose in front to win the 144th renewal of the Grade 1, $1 million Travers on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course.
Kentucky Derby winner Orb, making his first start since finishing third in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes in June, checked in third, three-quarters of a length behind the winner and a nose ahead of Palace Malice, who missed the break and had to rally uncharacteristically from well back.
Verrazano – favored at 8-5 in the field of nine 3-year-olds by a crowd of 47,597, the largest Travers crowd in the past 10 years – stalked the pace but faded to finish seventh.
Trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas for owner Willis D. Horton, Will Take Charge ran 1 ¼ miles in 2:02.68, and returned $21.20 for a $2 win bet as the 9-1 fourth choice.
It was the third Travers victory for Lukas and first since Thunder Gulch in 1995.
Lukas also won with Corporate Report in 1991. This was his first Travers starter since 2002.
Saddling a horse in the “Mid-Summer Derby” for the first time since 2002, Lukas also won with Corporate Report in 1991.
Will Take Charge made jockey Luis Saez a winner in his Travers debut. The Panamanian replaced Junior Alvarado after the chestnut son of Unbridled’s Song closed to be second by a length to Palace Malice in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga on July 27.
“I changed up a [few] things,” Lukas said. “I took a chance on an up-and-coming rider. I thought my horse trained well, but these things are so tough. At the three-eighths pole, I thought we’d get a piece of it, but I didn’t know if we’d get up. He’s a little over 17 hands [tall] and just starting to find himself. This is a horse who’s going to get better. He’s getting his act together.”
Will Take Charge is one of three horses to compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown this spring, finishing eighth in the Kentucky Derby, seventh to injured stablemate Oxbow in the Preakness, and 10th in the Belmont Stakes.
“It feels pretty good,” Lukas said of winning the Travers and the Preakness. “They were reminding me it’s been a long time between drinks, but when they come like this, they come double.”
As he did in the Jim Dandy, in which he finished third, Moreno bounded from the gate and was sent right for the lead by jockey Jose Ortiz. Tracked by Romansh on the inside and Verrazano on the outside, Moreno was able to set a leisurely pace of 24.40 seconds for the quarter-mile and 48.88 for the half.
Dismissed by bettors at 31-1, Moreno was still in front through six furlongs in 1:13.43. Orb began to make a move along the inside with Will Take Charge in close pursuit. Moreno came wide off the final turn after a mile in 1:37.47 but remained on top, though Orb was in full flight on the rail.
Saez swung Will Take Charge to the outside approaching the quarter pole and steered him to the middle of the track for the stretch run. As Moreno dug in to fend off the challenge of Orb, Verrazano began to fade, and Will Take Charge doggedly pursued the leader until sticking his nose in front at the wire.
The margin of victory matched the shortest in Travers history, reached nine times previously but not since Afleet Express in 2010.
“This horse was training good,” Saez said. “Last time, when he finished second, I saw the replays, and I knew how to ride him. I tried to ride him like he runs.”
Will Take Charge opened his sophomore season by winning the Smarty Jones in February, and two starts later beat Oxbow in the Grade 2 Rebel on March 16, both at Oaklawn Park.
Hidden in the shadow of his stablemate, Will Take Charge came off the Triple Crown campaign and was a strong second in the Jim Dandy, running a career-best 105 Beyer Speed Figure.
With the victory, Will Take Charge improved his record to 4-2-0 from 12 starts, and the $600,000 winner’s share nearly doubled his purse earnings to $1,265,371.
“These races, the Triple Crown races, the Breeders’ Cup and the Travers, especially at this time of year when horses have had hard campaigns, they’re special,” Lukas said. “There has never been a bad Travers. This one was really solid, but they’re all great. They don’t put up a million bucks on a Grade 1 and just hand it to them. You better get on your belly and have a horse ready to run, or you’re not going to win one of these.”
Trainer Eric Guillot was thrilled with the effort of Moreno , who broke his maiden on the Belmont Stakes undercard on June 8 in his 10th try, then won the Grade 2 Dwyer before finishing third in the Jim Dandy.
“Brutal, huh? Last jump,” Guillot said. “The kid rode him just like I told him. He knows the horse, and he rode him perfect. We got beat. He said the horse kind of waited on them that last part. What are you going to do?”
Todd Pletcher, who trains both Verrazano and Palace Malice, the 2-1 second choice, offered no excuses.
“Verrazano got a beautiful trip,” he said. “He got exactly where we thought he’d be; the only difference was we thought he’d be stalking Palice Malice. [Jockey] Mike [Smith] said [Palace Malice] missed the break. He slipped behind and dropped way back, not his characteristic spot. Mike thought he was much the best; the break killed him. It’s horse racing. We would have liked to have won it, but we’ve had a great meet and we’re not going to cry about it. We’ll regroup and try again.”
After winning the Derby, Orb was fourth in the Preakness and third in the Belmont, all as the betting favorite, then spent nine weeks at the Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland before returning to Saratoga on August 11.
Third choice in the Travers at 3-1, Orb was followed under the wire by Palace Malice, Romansh, War Dancer, Verrazano, Golden Soul and Transparent.
“He ran a good race,” said Orb’s trainer, Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey. “You can’t cry over spilled milk. We got him back on the right track, and now we’ll point for something else.”
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Travers (G1) Quotes
Eric Guillot, trainer of runner-up Moreno (No. 6): “Brutal, huh? Last jump. He couldn’t have done any better – stay in the three-path, stay off the rail, make them come to you, don’t let them go inside you, don’t let them pinch you on the rail. The kid [Jose Ortiz] rode him just like I told him. He knows the horse and he rode him perfect; we got beat. He said the horse kind of waited on them that last part. What are you going to do?”
“Who wouldn’t have wanted to win on this day, on this stage? Like I say, you got to pay the piper for the stuff I talk, right? But I backed it up pretty damn good running second at [31-1] in the Travers, right? You can look at it both ways.”
Jose Ortiz, jockey of runner-up Moreno (No. 6): “My horse did a great job. I set the pace, very good, 24 and 48. He gave me a lot, but he was kind of waiting a little bit.”
“I know I went easy the first quarter and the second, so I picked it up after half a mile, and he gave me something. He was playing a little bit and waiting a little bit; I think if he started running at the quarter pole like I wanted, he’d win the race.”
“I didn’t worry about that horse on the inside [Orb], because I felt the horse on the outside.”
Shug McGaughey, trainer of third-place finisher Orb (No. 2): “He ran a good race. You can’t cry over spilled milk. We got him back on the right track, and now we’ll point for something else.”
Jose Lezcano, jockey aboard third-place finisher Orb (No. 2): “I got a very good trip. I got the position I wanted. The break was good, and he gave me his race. At the quarter pole, he accelerated, but the other horses kept going, too.”
Todd Pletcher, trainer of fourth-place finisher Palace Malice (No. 8) and beaten favorite and seventh-place finisher Verrazano (No. 3): “Verrazano got a beautiful trip. He got exactly where we thought he’d be; the only difference was we thought he’d be stalking Palace Malice. Mike [Smith] said [Palace Malice] missed the break. He slipped behind and dropped way back, not his characteristic spot. Mike thought he was much the best; the break killed him. It’s horse racing. It happens every day, every race, 14 times a day sometimes. We would have liked to have won it, but we’ve had a great meet and we’re not going to cry about it. We’ll regroup and try again.”
Mike Smith, jockey aboard fourth-place finisher Palace Malice (No. 8): “You have to go back [to the replay] and watch the break. He broke really, really, really bad. What am I going to do? I cannot go for the lead. All I could do is sit back there, creep up, creep up, creep up and see if I could get him there. I thought I still had it for a little bit there, but it was just too much to make up.”
Thomas Albertrani, trainer of fifth-place finisher Romansh (No. 1): “He ran well, he broke really sharp. It looked like Javier could have been on the lead but he settled for second. He stayed on well ran a good race, just wasn’t good enough.”
Javier Castellano, jockey aboard fifth-place finisher Romansh (No. 1): “He broke sharp, I put him in a good spot in the race. I expected more speed in the race but nobody really wanted to go. My horse was right behind the front runners He made a good move but he got tired.”
Ken McPeek, trainer of sixth-place finisher War Dancer (No. 6): “There was absolutely no pace, the riders chickened out and let the six get away with murder and you know, my horse ran well and he only got beat five lengths, but he didn’t have anything to run at. He is going to run on the dirt again.”
Alan Garcia, jockey aboard sixth-place finisher War Dancer (No. 6): “My horse handled the track. He has no excuse, there was no pace in that race. He ran well, wouldn’t want to expect more, you know. It felt good, he ran a good race.”
John Velazquez, jockey aboard seventh-place finisher Verrazano (No. 3): “I was very happy where I was. By the half-mile pole, he was off the bridle and just went through the motions. He really didn’t put in much effort.”
Dallas Stewart, trainer of eighth-place finisher Golden Soul (No. 4): “We’re just going to regroup and see where we’re at here. I need to talk to Robby [Albarado] more first.”
Robby Albarado, rider of eighth-place finisher Golden Soul (No. 4): “He ran okay. I had a great trip and it wasn’t his day.”
Irad Ortiz, rider of ninth-place finisher Transparent (No. 9): “No pace. All day, the speed was good. They went 24, 48; that’s too slow for this horse. I got relaxed all the way, and when I tried to pick it up his pace, he stayed in the same place and never picked it up.”