Next Challenge

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All was quiet inside Barn 83 on the Oklahoma Training Track grounds as training hours wound down Wednesday morning. 

It’s actually been quite quiet in that northeast corner of the facility since the rest of trainer D. Wayne Lukas’ string shipped out of Saratoga Springs and back to Churchill Downs, part of the annual post-Labor Day exodus that hits the area and sends everyone back to reality.

Only one stall is occupied in the barn, that of Will Take Charge, and after the Travers winner ships to Parx Racing outside Philadelphia to run in Saturday’s $1 million Pennsylvania Derby the barn will be empty. Lukas left Will Take Charge behind purposely, pleased with the way the flashy chestnut with all that chrome trained over the Oklahoma.

No sense leaving only to come back in a few weeks, wherever back may be.

Assistant trainer Bas Nicholl, an 11-year veteran with Lukas, also stayed, leaving for a few days the week after Labor Day before returning to oversee the Unbridled’s Song colt’s last serious workout.

“He’s doing very, very well,” Nicholl said, standing in the barn’s tack room as he separated the gear that will either go to Parx or Churchill. “He started to do really well here, before the Jim Dandy, so for Wayne it was a no-brainer to leave him here after the Travers.

“Our next goal was going to be up here in the Northeast somewhere, so I think Wayne felt like it was logical to stay here for the three weeks after the meet rather than ship to Kentucky and ship up again.”

All his serious training complete, Will Take Charge rested comfortably in his stall a few doors down and around the corner from the tack room. Same stall he was in earlier this summer, before a late-charging runner-up finish in the July 27 Jim Dandy and before his nose victory over Dwyer winner Moreno in the August 24 Travers.

Done up for the day and resting comfortably in the knee-high straw, Will Take Charge popped his head up and then out the V-shaped opening in his white stall screen at the sight of a visitor. He didn’t linger long, unimpressed by any visitors. The two remaining members of Team Lukas stack a John Deere Gator high with boxes and other items ready for the road.

Down the road in Philadelphia Will Take Charge will get reacquainted with Moreno, a Ghostzapper gelding who led all but the one jump that mattered most in the 1 ¼-mile Travers. He left when the rest of the Southern Equine Stable runners owned by Mike Moreno and trained by Eric Guillot moved to Belmont Park or Southern California.

Will Take Charge breezed twice on the Oklahoma since the Travers, going a half-mile in :50.23 the Wednesday after closing day and a spirited 5 furlongs in 1:00.89 last Friday.

“The first work was just a maintenance work and the second one, at five-eighths, Wayne wanted him to have a solid work, set him down a little bit,” Nicholl said. “He went very well. To go a minute and four (fifths) out there by yourself is pretty respectable. We were lucky with the weather, too. We were watching the forecast and the track was horrible Saturday and Sunday, so we were very happy that we did it on Friday.”

Nicholl beamed after Will Take Charge won the Travers – one of three wins at the meeting for the Lukas barn along with a maiden and the Grade 1 Hopeful for the promising 2-year-old Strong Mandate. He hasn’t noticed anything different in the three-plus weeks since.

“Literally since about a week before the Jim Dandy, he has not looked back once,” Nicholl said. “It’s been very, very positive and he’s just done very well here. He hasn’t missed a day, hasn’t missed a grain of feed, his work schedule, his training schedule, has been spot on.”

Will Take Charge is the 2-1 morning-line favorite for the Travers, just ahead of 5-2 second choice Moreno, in the field of eight entered in the 1 1/8-mile Pennsylvania Derby. Luis Saez, accused of carrying an electronic device in the Travers by Guillot and still under investigation by the New York State Gaming Commission, has the return call on Will Take Charge.

The Pennsylvania Derby field features two others from the Travers in Godolphin Racing’s coupled entry of Romansh and Transparent at 8-1. Java’s War, winner of the Grade 1 Blue Grass on Keeneland’s Polytrack, is the third choice at 4-1 as he makes his first start since being transferred from trainer Ken McPeek to Barclay Tagg. Speak Logistics, third to Kentucky Derby winner Orb in the Fountain of Youth earlier this year and second in the Grade 3 Smarty Jones at Parx last time out, is the fourth choice on the line at 5-1. Fury Kapcori and Battier complete the field.

The Pennsylvania Derby is one of two seven-figure races on the card, along with the Grade 1 Cotillion for 3-year-old fillies. Sweet Lulu, who shipped in from Southern California to win the Grade 1 Test for Jerry Hollendorfer, returns to the East Coast and is the 7-2 morning-line choice for the 1 1/16-mile Cotillion. Mother Goose winner Close Hatches, Monmouth Oaks winner Seaneen Girl and Delaware Oaks winner Dancing Afleet are also entered. Chad Brown cross-entered My Happy Face in the Cotillion and $400,000 Charles Town Oaks Saturday night and seemed to be leaning toward the latter for the Tiz Wonderful filly. Others entered are Flash Forward, Carnival Court, Asiya, Promise Me More and Street Girl.

Saturday’s Parx card also includes the Grade 3 $300,000 Gallant Bob for 3-year-olds going 6 furlongs and the $75,000 Alphabet Soup for Pennsylvania-breds on the turf.

Check out Saturday’s Pennsylvania Derby card.

Watch the Travers.

Read about the Travers Stakes review by gaming commission.