They've risen to the top of the 3-year-old division with definitive performances in the nation's biggest races. Now, North America's best sophomores -- Kentucky Derby winner Orb, Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice and William Hill Haskell Invitational winner Verrazano -- face off Aug. 24 at Saratoga Race Course in the $1 million Travers Stakes.
Leading Saratoga trainer Todd Pletcher packs a powerful punch in this year's 144th edition of the Travers, with Dogwood Stable's Palace Malice coming off a solid July 27 Jim Dandy score and Verrazano having won the Haskell by 9¾ lengths July 28.
Verrazano, who will leave Post 3 under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, was installed by oddsmaker Eric Donovan as the 2-1 favorite on the morning line, while Palace Malice is the 5-2 second choice from the 8-hole under another Hall of Famer in Mike Smith.
"Ideally, they're horses that want to stalk an honest pace, and I think we should get an honest pace in here," Pletcher said. "Both horses are training probably better than they have at any stage of their career … putting on weight, getting stronger. They're two very easy horses to train, great minds. … [I'm] very satisfied with how they're training."
TRAVERS STAKES DRAW
Verrazano will make his first start at Saratoga but has been training forwardly over the upstate New York oval in the weeks leading up to the "Midsummer Derby." The son of More Than Ready put together back-to-back graded scores for Let's Go Stable and Coolmore Partners when winning the Pegasus Stakes before the 1⅛-mile Haskell, and aside from an off-the-board finish over a sloppy track in the Derby, he has won every race in seven starts -- including the Tampa Bay Derby and Wood Memorial Stakes.
Racing pundits wonder about Verrazano's ability to get the Travers distance, but Pletcher said the colt's Haskell score at Monmouth Park answered that question before he's even been asked to go long again.
"The track was very demanding that day, probably the slowest Monmouth track I've ever seen, and for him to draw away the way he did at the end of a mile and an eighth put away any concerns I ever had," the trainer said.
Palace Malice, the first North American winner for Curlin, is 2-for-2 at Saratoga with a 3½-length maiden score last year and the 1⅛-mile Jim Dandy victory by a length over Will Take Charge. The bay colt won the Belmont by 3¼ lengths over now-sidelined Preakness winner Oxbow, with Orb coming in third.
Orb, the homebred son of Malibu Moon who races for Phipps Stable and Stuart Janney III under the capable supervision of Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, has not raced since that June 8 test at Belmont Park. Instead, the 4-1 third choice on the Travers morning line enjoyed an extended period of rest at Fair Hill Training Center near Elkton, Md.
"When we put him on the van to go to Fair Hill after the Belmont, he was pretty spent," McGaughey said. "He got bigger; he put on some weight. I think mentally he's probably a lot sharper than he was, so we'll see if our experiment worked. I'm looking forward to Saturday. I'm looking forward to running Orb, and I think we'll see a great race."
Willis D. Horton's Will Take Charge and Southern Equine Stable's Moreno return from respective second- and third-place finishes in the Jim Dandy to tackle the big guns again.
Front-running Moreno, a Ghostzapper gelding who won the July 6 Dwyer Stakes before finishing third in the Jim Dandy, has been highly touted by colorful trainer Eric Guillot and will play a role in the pace scenario from Post 6 under jockey Jose Ortiz.
Will Take Charge, by Unbridled's Song out of multiple Grade 1 winner Take Charge Lady, won the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes over Oxbow earlier in the season but raced in each leg of the Triple Crown with little success -- eighth in the Derby, seventh in the Preakness and 10th in the Belmont.
"The Derby experience seemed to affect him a little bit mentally," Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. "He got a little bit more involved in that than you'd want to think, and he came out of that a little less focused than I thought he should have been. We raced him with blinkers on, but in the Jim Dandy, I pulled the blinkers off, let him see everything, and I thought that worked well. Coming into the stretch, when the crowd was roaring, that distracted him a little bit, but then he came back at Palace Malice again."
Another runner who has seen Triple Crown battle is Charles Fipke's homebred Golden Soul, runner-up by 2½ lengths to Orb in the Derby for trainer Dallas Stewart. Assigned Post 4 under Robby Albarado, the chestnut son of Perfect Soul looks to get back on track after running ninth in the Belmont and seventh in the Haskell.
Magdalena Racing's War Dancer, winner of the July 13 Virginia Derby, is an intriguing addition to the field from the barn of Ken McPeek. The Virginia Derby is a 1¼-mile race, albeit on turf; this will be the second dirt start for the War Front runner, who was fourth in a Gulfstream Park dirt allowance earlier this year. In five turf starts since then, War Dancer has three wins, a second and a third in the American Turf Stakes at Churchill Downs.
Last year, McPeek sent long shot Golden Ticket to tie with the Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Alpha for the first dead-heat in modern Travers history. In the only other occurrence of a Travers dead heat, in 1874, tied Attila and Acrobat participated in a runoff in which Attila prevailed to be named the winner.
Completing the field are Romansh, a lightly raced son of 2006 Travers winner Bernardini who is trained by Tom Albertrani for Godolphin, and Transparent, also by Bernardini, who races for Godolphin and McLaughlin.
Transparent won the July 26 Curlin Stakes but was disqualified to fifth; Romansh was declared the winner after initially running two lengths behind his entrymate in the 1⅛-mile affair.