SARATOGA SPRINGS – The Coach put on another clinic in a big race Saturday afternoon at Saratoga Race Course.
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas continued his renaissance, training Will Take Charge to a nose victory in the $1 million Grade 1 Travers Stakes before a boisterous crowd of 47,597. Will Take Charge, the monstrous 17-hand colt, finally sealed the deal by overtaking Moreno in deep stretch to win the Mid-Summer Derby in a photo finish.
Lukas started his big year by winning the Preakness, with talented Oxbow, who missed the Travers due to injury. Will Take Charge, second in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes earlier in the meet, was stricken with bad racing luck through most of the Triple Crown series, and emerged as a late contender for 3-year-old divisional honors with the Travers victory. Luis Saez was in the irons on the son of Unbridled’s Song.
Going off at generous odds of 9-1, Will Take Charge paid $21.20 to win, $8.60 to place and $5.20 to show. He completed the mile and a quarter in 2:02.68 after stalking the pace most of the way before angling out at the five-sixteenths pole, then drawing even in deep stretch before getting his nose down on the wire.
Moreno, who tried to go gate-to-wire after setting early fractions of 24.40 and 48.88, took advantage of the speed-favoring track and fought valiantly throughout. He paid $25.40 to place and $9.80 to show, going off at long odds of 31-1. Kentucky Derby winner Orb finished third, paying $4.30 to show.
Will Take Charge encountered issues in all three Triple Crown races, none more apparent than when Verrazano started backing up right in front of the big colt in the Kentucky Derby, just as he was accelerating alongside Orb, the eventual winner. In both the Preakness and Belmont he suffered bad breaks and was never a factor. On Saturday, he kept that big frame on the outside and had plenty of running room to go after the leader.
Lukas, who last ran a horse in the Travers in 2002, won his third career Travers. He previously won with Corporate Report (1991) and Thunder Gulch (1995). The 78-year-old veteran conditioner was confident his horse had a good chance before the race.
“I felt all along there were five or six horses in here that would be deserving, no matter who won it. We felt ours was one of them. We just felt like he was getting better,” said Lukas.
He used some of his decision-making skills acquired as a high school basketball and football coach before becoming a full-time thoroughbred trainer in selecting Saez to ride Will Take Charge late in the week. “I try to match them up. I try to get somebody that I think might fit the particular horse I’m running, and Luis has been wonderful to go along with that aspect all the time,” reasoned Lukas.
Moreno, trained by Eric Guillot, couldn’t have fought harder for the colorful Cajun. Guillot thinks his fast improving horse can take a shot at the Breeders’ Cup Classic against older horses in November.
“I think I have a legitimate horse, and if I can get easy fractions out of his stall, I can take on the older horses, especially if Game on Dude falters here or there,” Guillot said. “That division is pretty weak for mile and a quarter, a lot of them can’t get a mile and a quarter.”
The hyped battle between the three big winners of the Derby, Belmont Stakes and Haskell never materialized, each having a different result. Belmont winner Palace Malice broke badly and his race was over before it began. Verrazano failed the distance test, and Orb, with substitute jockey Jose Lezcano aboard for the injured Joel Rosario, couldn’t get past the two leaders when asked in deep stretch.
Trainer Todd Pletcher, one of Lukas’ many former protégés currently training, was left wondering what could have been had Palace Malice not missed the break.
“It’s horse racing,” Pletcher said. “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.”. The win by Will Take Charge now puts the 3-year-old colt division up for grabs. Both Orb and Verrazano each have two Grade 1 victories and Palace Malice and Oxbow have earned consideration for their campaigns to date. Lukas put the year end laurels in perspective, just like the old ball coach he portrays.
“John Nerud, the wonderful trainer that’s turned a hundred by now, told me years ago, Wayne, championships are never won in the spring; they’re only won in the fall,” said Lukas.
Don’t count out the Coach, when this year’s championship is handed out.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.