Journey to the Travers

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Rarely does a confluence of divisional stars come together and a series of events fall into place quite like it did for the $1 million Travers Stakes that will be run for 144th time today at old Saratoga.

Certainly the easy sell for the Travers, the oldest American stakes for 3-year-olds and most prestigious run at the classic 10-furlong distance outside the three spring classics, is the presence of three colts bidding to take the lead in their division.

It’s easy to sell the Kentucky Derby winner, the Belmont winner and the Haskell Invitational winner. That’s the story you see around town and on posters all over the track. A good story mind you, for this year’s Travers marks the first time the Derby winner showed up since Super Saver in 2010 and a rarity in the last two decades with two classic winners in the race.

Perhaps the real story of the 2013 Travers isn’t just that they’re here, but how they got here.

It’s a road that started in the mud of Churchill Downs and wound its way to the expansive fields of Fair Hill to the offseason peaceful grounds of the Oklahoma and finally to the Jersey Shore. Along for the ride are six other talented 3-year-olds in their own right, all but two being stakes winners and the exceptions being the Derby runner-up and a disqualified winner of a small stakes earlier this meet.

Sure the Preakness winner isn’t here, but it’s still arguably the best race in the 3-year-old division since, well, the Triple Crown. Just as some of the founders drew it up when they first ran the race named for the first president of Saratoga back in 1864.

The history of the race will undoubtedly be lost on many in the large crowd that turns out today on what is expected to be a spectacular weather day to watch a 14-race card that includes three other important stakes.

The history is not lost on the race’s participants, owners, trainers and jockeys who have won it before and know its importance.

People like Shug McGaughey, who brings Kentucky Derby winner Orb, seeking his fourth Travers win. Or Todd Pletcher, who sends out the possibly offsetting duo of Belmont winner Palace Malice and Haskell winner Verrazano, bidding for his third Travers in the last 10 years. Maybe the Maktoum family’s Godolphin Racing, owners of the uncoupled Romansh and Transparent and with people hoping that at least one of the canoes on the infield stays blue. Then there’s the ageless D. Wayne Lukas, who last hoisted the Man o’ War Cup given to the Travers winner when he won his second in 1995 with Thunder Gulch.

McGaughey and Orb bring just one of the intriguing storylines to this year’s Travers.

The trainer knew Orb was wrung out by the time the Malibu Moon colt completed the demanding Triple Crown series with a win in the Derby, a fourth in the Preakness and a third in the Belmont. A race like the Travers is important to the colt’s owners and breeders, Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps and Stuart Janney III. McGaughey went searching for a way to get Orb there.

The answer came in unlikeliest of places, especially for the Hall of Fame trainer whose Kentucky accent belies the fact that he’s a New York trainer through and through. Hearing good things and remembering one positive experience of his own, McGaughey chose Fair Hill as the place to first give Orb some rest and then to get him started again.

“I just wanted to get him away from the racetrack and in a different atmosphere,” McGaughey said earlier this week outside his barn on the Oklahoma Training Track. “He did really well in the country atmosphere at Payson Park, it was either here or there. Here would have been fine, but it’s very crowded here with 750 horses on this track.

“I called Bruce [Jackson, at Fair Hill] on Sunday morning after the Belmont. Never been there, never met Bruce. I sent one horse down there four or five years ago. I said, ‘What do you think of me sending him down there and putting him in the hyperbaric chamber and just letting him have a bit of time?’ He said, ‘We’ve had some luck with that Shug.’ I called him back and said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ “

The original plan was to stay for about two weeks. When the two weeks were up, McGaughey faced another decision.

“When two weeks wasn’t quite up yet, it was on a Thursday, I asked him, ‘Bruce what do we do now?’ ” McGaughey said. “He said, ‘Shug, this horse is doing so good down here, I’d think twice about taking him out of here.’ “

Orb stayed, started back in serious training with assistant and regular exercise rider Jenn Patterson and didn’t get to Saratoga until well after the meet opened. He breezed five times on Fair Hill’s dirt track, including a strong 5-furlong move in :59.20 Aug. 10.

McGaughey, a member of the Hall of Fame since 2004, also decided to not give Orb a race before the Travers. The Jim Dandy at Saratoga and Haskell Invitational the last weekend of July are the typical targets, and five of the Travers nine entrants raced in either of those races, but McGaughey went another direction.

“People ask why I didn’t run him in the Jim Dandy or the Haskell, I might have fried him if I did that,” McGaughey said. “I wanted to try to come in as a fresh horse and see what happens. I didn’t think I would have a problem getting him fit enough and I thought I could have him sharp enough. In an ideal situation, yeah, you’d like to have a race, but…”

While Orb rested and started to come back at Fair Hill, Pletcher was getting Palace Malice and Verrazano ready for their respective targets in the two races mentioned above.

Palace Malice, who defeated Oxbow and Orb in the Belmont Stakes after a too-much-too-soon performance in the Kentucky Derby, continued to show no ill effects from the 1 ½-mile Belmont and continued to impress anyone who saw him training first on the Oklahoma in June and then on the main track once it opened July 1.

Pletcher kept it simple with the Curlin colt, half-miles and five-eighths, seven days apart. Nothing as spectacular as his next-to-last work before his Belmont win, but strong nevertheless.

“When you have four weeks between races and a fit horse, you don’t want be too creative, just try to keep them happy and ticking over,” said Pletcher, well on his way to another Saratoga training title this year. “A couple of maintenance breezes, for him, are solid. Easy horse to train, doesn’t overdo it on his morning gallops but he’s there in his works. Stand him in the gate, paddock school him once.”

More of the same for Verrazano, although the once-beaten More Than Ready colt made Pletcher work a little more. He breezed in company, the last time before the Travers with King’s Bishop entrant Capo Bastone, whereas Palace Malice goes it alone.

Pletcher says Verrazano, who earned glittering speed figures for his 9 ¾-length win in the Haskell and earlier this year won the Grade 1 Wood Memorial, can be “a little bit of a lazy horse.”

“He’s uncomplicated but at the same time, he knows the difference between the a.m. and the p.m.,” Pletcher said.

Verrazano ran his record to 4-for-4 with the Wood win in April and was pegged as the morning-line favorite for the Kentucky Derby. He wound up going off at more than 8-1 at Churchill, while Orb was dismissed as the 5-1 favorite and splashed home by 2 ½ lengths. Verrazano was 14th that day, beaten 15 ¾ lengths, but bounced back to win the Grade 3 Pegasus and the Haskell by daylight.

“He’s better every time he runs,” jockey John Velazquez said. “We kept throwing more at him, he was better. We kept throwing more at him, he was better. He stepped up to a different level every time, his only bad race was the Derby.

“He’s pretty easy to ride. He’s still a horse who’s not 100 percent of what he needs to be. It’s funny, he’s been winning all these times, but if he doesn’t get out of looking around the way he does, eventually maybe he’ll need blinkers. He runs so good, we can’t dream of putting blinkers on him, obviously. When he focuses on what he needs to do, he’s really serious.”

Pletcher agreed that both Palace Malice and Verrazano are uncomplicated horses, but is a bit concerned that the two who race for different owners could either compromise or simply get in each other’s way.

Verrazano and Velazquez break from post 3, with no serious early speed to their inside with Godolphin’s Romansh and Orb in the two inside posts. Palace Malice and Mike Smith drew farther out, post 8, with expected speed of Moreno two slots to his inside.

“The most complicated thing about it from our standpoint is we have two horses that are likely to be looking for the same spot,” Pletcher said. “All you can do is talk to each individual jockey about the trip you want for each horse and they’ve got to sort it out on their own. Mike’s in a good spot because he’s breaking outside Moreno, Johnny’s got to figure out where he wants to be, he might have enough horses that don’t have a lot of speed that he can fall into that seam, ideally, he’d like to be third, outside. He’s generally been a good gate horse and puts himself in a good position and then he’s not rank.”

Aside from those three the most serious threats might be Will Take Charge from Lukas’ barn and Godolphin’s Transparent, who won the Curlin Stakes for Kiaran McLaughlin but was disqualified for interference at the top of the stretch. They’re both listed at 10-1 on the morning line, just ahead of the 12-1 duo of Romansh, who was awarded the Curlin for Tom Albertrani and Godolphin, and Dwyer winner Moreno. War Dancer, who makes his second start on dirt after a productive career to date on the grass, is 15-1 and Derby runner-up Golden Soul is 20-1 off two poor efforts in the Belmont and Haskell.

Post time for the Travers is 5:46 p.m. and the race is part of NBC’s coverage from 4:30 to 6 p.m.

Additional reporting by Sean Clancy.