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Orb takes on juggernaut Pletcher pair in Travers

Orb will try to return to the form that saw him capture the Kentucky Derby in Saturday's Travers (Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography)

Orb stamped himself as leader of the three-year-old division with an easy win in the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May, but subsequent losses in the Preakness and Belmont saw the Malibu Moon colt slip in the ranks as other sophomores threw their hat in for an Eclipse Award.

On Saturday, the bay colt has the perfect opportunity to reassert his claim on championship honors when facing eight rivals in the Grade 1, $1 million Travers going the Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles at Saratoga. Standing in Orb's way are the Todd Pletcher-trained powerhouse duo of Palace Malice and Verrazano.

Orb drew post 2 in the Travers, and will have regular rider Joel Rosario aboard as he seeks his first win since taking the Kentucky Derby.

"I'm going to sound a little bit like Todd (Pletcher)," McGaughey said after the draw. "If I'd have had the six or seven or eight (post), I probably would have been a little bit more happy than the two, but we've got a long way to go. We can save some ground and, hopefully, there will be a pace where we can get out when the time comes."

Orb was unbeaten in 2013 entering the Run for the Roses, having broken his maiden last November at Aqueduct and opening his sophomore season with a one-length score against optional claiming rivals in January at Gulfstream Park. Following that, the colt proceeded to take the Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby before dashing his connections' dreams of Triple Crown glory when fourth in the Preakness.

Despite that, owner/breeders Stuart S. Janney III and Phipps Stable opted to run Orb in the Belmont, where he rebounded a bit for a tiring third.

"I think when we put him on the van to go to Fair Hill the day after the Belmont, he was pretty spent," McGaughey admitted. "He was a horse then; I think he's come back a lot more of a horse for his experience down there. He only had the tack off of him for two weeks, so it wasn't like he wasn't training very much. But, he got bigger and put on some weight, and mentally he's probably a lot sharper than he was. We'll find out Saturday whether that experiment worked or didn't work.

"I'm looking forward to the Travers on Saturday. I think it's a great race," the Hall of Famer added. "With Palace Malice, you've got very much of a now horse that's always dangerous. Verrazano ever since he broke his maiden has been a top horse and the only blemish on his record is the Kentucky Derby, and he sure bounced out of that pretty well.

"I think it really comes up a solid race. I'm looking forward to Saturday. I'm looking forward to running Orb, and I think you'll see him run a very good race."

Verrazano was a powerful winner of the Haskell (David Owens/Equi-Photo)

While Palace Malice captured the Belmont Stakes and Jim Dandy in his past two, the son of Curlin is currently playing second fiddle to stable star Verrazano. That bay colt was a top contender for the Derby early in the season, but lost some standing when just eking out the win in the Wood Memorial one race prior. His naysayers were proved right in the Derby when the More Than Ready sophomore tired to 14th in his first career loss.

Pletcher never lost a beat with Verrazano, though, sending him out to a 9 1/4-length victory in the Pegasus and a 9 3/4-length score in the Haskell Invitational, both at Monmouth Park. John Velazquez, aboard for all of Verrazano's seven races thus far, will hold the reins as the colt tries 10 furlongs for the second time.

"I thought (distance concerns) existed (for other people) until he won the Haskell the way he did," Pletcher stated. "The track was very demanding that day, probably the slowest Monmouth track I had ever seen. For him to draw away like he did at the end of a mile and an eighth, to me, put away any concerns about that. Just watching the horse train over the last year and a half, I never thought he had any distance limitations.

"He's a tactical horse that can put himself in a good position, and, obviously, Johnny knows him well. We'll see how the race unfolds going into the first turn."

Pletcher will also saddle Palace Malice, who has a similar front-running style as Verrazano, in the Travers. The Dogwood Stable colorbearer has utilized it to good effect in his past two, and the improving colt keeps Mike Smith aboard for Saturday.

"You always worry about that, especially with two horses with, basically, the same running styles," Pletcher admitted. "Ideally, they're horses that want to stalk an honest pace. I think we should get an honest pace in here, and they're both going to be laying just off the main speed.

Palace Malice proved his versatility at long distances when romping in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes (Jessie Holmes/EquiSport Photos)

"It's rare that you have horses go through a series of Triple Crown prep races and then run in the Derby and the Belmont and seem like they get stronger and better. In (Palace Malice's) case, he's gaining weight, he's gotten bigger and stronger, more professional. He seems to be thriving on it. Verrazano's constitution, he's very much the same kind of horse.

"They're both horses that carry their weight well and take their races well. They're kind horses to train; they don't overdo it on a daily basis. When you have them breeze, they're right there doing exactly what you want them to do.

"We're concerned we're trying to match lifetime-best performances in four weeks," he added about his pair's last races. "It's always a balancing act. We just hope they can come over and run their races, and everything we have seen in their training since the Jim Dandy and Haskell indicates to us they're still in peak form. We hope it's still the case Saturday afternoon.

While most of the attention will be focused on the top trio, trainer D. Wayne Lukas could provide an upset in the form of Will Take Charge. The veteran conditioner did just that in the Preakness, saddling Oxbow to a 1 3/4-length triumph at 15-1 in the Preakness. Will Take Charge sandwiched a seventh-place effort in that race between an eighth in the Derby and a 10th-placing in the Belmont.

The chestnut son of Unbridled's Song rebounded well out of the Triple Crown, rallying for second behind Palace Malice in the Jim Dandy last out.

Will Take Charge (outside) earned his shot in the KY Derby by just getting the head victory at 28-1 in the Rebel (Oaklawn Park/Coady Photography)

"The Derby experience seemed to affect him mentally," Lukas explained. "He got a little bit more involved than you may want to think. He came out of that a little less focused than he should have been; then I kept the blinkers on him. When I went into the Jim Dandy, I decided to do something different -- we pulled the blinkers off. I thought that made a big difference. That let him see everything.

"When Tom Durkin hollered, 'Palace Malice hits the front' right at the top of the stretch, the crowd roared all the way to the quarter-pole. He (Will Take Charge) gawked at that and ducked in, then he came back out and ran at Palace Malice."

Will Take Charge gets a jockey switch to Luiz Saez for the Travers.

"It's not surprising for me. I think that's the basketball coach (in me) coming out," Lukas said of rider change. "I get a gut feeling on who's playing well and who isn't. I like to match them up a little bit. It's not to say that Junior (Alvarado) didn't ride a real good race in the Jim Dandy. I thought maybe Luis would fit this horse a little better, be a little more aggressive. I made an executive decision."

Will Take Charge and Saez will break from the 5 post on Saturday.

"Excellent. My favorite number," Lukas teased before saying, "I think it is (meaningless). We are going a mile and a quarter here. We've got a little ways to go. I think it's going to be spread out a little bit. I don't think everybody is going to be bunched up going into the first turn. It will mean a little bit on the break and it will mean a little bit on who's in the back and who's doing what, and what they are thinking about as they try to get position. It gives us something to talk about, but it's not that big of a deal."

Moreno scored an easy seven-length Dwyer win with ears pricked (Bud Morton/EquiSport Photos)

Also exiting the Jim Dandy is Moreno, who finished third after leading in the early going. The Eric Guillot-trained son of Ghostzapper brought a seven-length, front-running victory in the Dwyer and a 6 1/4-length maiden score into that race.

"My horse is going to have to run faster," Guillot said. "We're here to play. We're here for fun. It's the Travers. Owner Michael Moreno and I, this is what we do. Like I told him the other day, I'm not going to get up at 4:30 seven days a week and not go to the big dance."

The trainer has been high on his colt for a while now and hopes he continues to improve on Saturday.

"What I said was if he decided to start running and show desire, he'll be the best three-year-old," Guillot stated. "He was cooled out by the time I took the tongue tie off of him in the Dandy.

"Exactly. They've still got holes in donuts," he quipped when asked if Moreno would go to the front when the gates opened. "He's more efficient than Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. How efficient is that?"

The Travers features many rematches this year, including from the host track's token prep race, the July 26 Curlin. The Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Transparent was an easy two-length scorer of that nine-furlong feature but found himself disqualified for bothering a rival and placed fifth. The dark bay son of Bernardini will be looking for vindication on Saturday as he tries to become the third straight winner of the race from his sire's three crops to race.

"His father, Bernardini, won the (2006) Travers, (and) two sons of Bernardini -- Stay Thirsty (2011) and Alpha (2012, dead-heat) -- won the Travers, so he definitely has the pedigree," McLaughlin noted.

"The (far outside) post I don't think is a big deal. The competition is. The horse is doing well, and (the Curlin) was a true prep. He had some gaps in his races, obviously, 112 days, and in his work tab, also. He's worked twice since he ran and we're ready for him to run a big race. We got the race, two works, and we're ready."

Romansh was the beneficiary of Transparent's Curlin disqualification, awarded the win in his first try against stakes rivals. Though Saturday will represent a major class jump, trainer Tom Albertrani is willing to take the chance.

"This horse has been improving with every start," he asserted. "He has only raced four times and I have seen a big improvement after every start. And I was really pleased with the forward step he made in the Curlin, and I could see him actually making another forward step hopefully this Saturday. That was definitely his best race. We were happy to be second. Transparent ran a huge race himself and our horse was coming in off a bit of a layoff, so I could definitely see where this race is definitely going to bring him over another step.

"Love the way he has been going into this race. He is definitely more focused and had a good work here a week ago. I am getting all the right signs. The horse is just doing extremely well."

Romansh will break from the rail under Javier Castellano.

War Dancer (center) fought a winning battle to take the Virginia Derby (Colonial Downs/Coady Photography)

War Dancer and Golden Soul complete the field for the 144th running of the Travers. The former, a last-out winner of the grassy Virginia Derby going 10 furlongs, will actually be trying dirt for only the second time in his career. His prior effort on the main track resulted in a fourth-placing against maiden rivals in February at Gulfstream.

"We kind of pigeon-holed him as a grass horse for an extended period," trainer Ken McPeek explained. "He was winning and doing everything right, but he has been doing everything right on the dirt as well. We probably had an opportunity to run in the Secretariat (last Saturday at Arlington) with him, but I think you only get one shot at (the Travers), and I think he's deserving.

"That race didn't have much pace in it," he added about War Dancer's previous dirt start. "I think we got a little bit too far back and I know he didn't kick on like he had, but he did gallop out really good in that race. I could have come back on the dirt, but the easier thing was to get him back on the grass. Good horses will run over anything, and he has shown he's a really good horse."

Golden Soul is still just a maiden winner, but did finish second to Orb in the Kentucky Derby. Conditioner Dallas Stewart gave him some time off following a subpar ninth in the Belmont Stakes, but the chestnut returned to be a well-beaten last of seven in the Haskell. Despite all that, Stewart hasn't lost faith in his colt.

"He's trained very well since that last race," the trainer said. "I don't have any idea why he ran so bad down at Monmouth. He's trained great here; he's passed every health check that we've given him. He's passed every workout; time-wise, they've been great. His appetite is terrific. I couldn't be happier with him. I think he can compete, so here we are."

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