08/22/2013 3:25PM

Steven Crist: Need a Travers longshot? Here you go

Tom Keyser
Will Take Charge (above) didn't show much in the Triple Crown races, but he beat Oxbow to win the Rebel and comes off a second to Palace Malice in the Jim Dandy.

If you had won the weekly drawing for a free $15,000 bet on the Saturday feature at Saratoga, you would probably want to put it on one of the three favorites for the race: Verrazano (2-1), coming off a sensational blowout victory in the Haskell; Palace Malice (5-2), who has won the Belmont Stakes and the Jim Dandy in his last two starts; or Orb (7-2), the Kentucky Derby winner. They are all good horses, and any one of them would move straight to the head of the 3-year-old class with a Travers triumph.

Since you didn’t win the drawing, however, you are not obliged to play it safe and choose among the lowest-risk options. Might I interest you instead in a 10-1 shot with a fighting chance?

If Will Take Charge hadn’t run second to Palace Malice in the Jim Dandy here four weeks ago, you would be reasonable to demand 50-1 to bet on him in the Travers. He ran in all three legs of the Triple Crown but didn’t do a whole lot of running: eighth beaten 12 1/4 lengths in the Derby at 38-1; seventh beaten 16 lengths in the Preakness at 11-1; and 10th beaten 17 lengths in the Belmont at 22-1. A mere 45 1/4 lengths away from Triple Crown immortality.

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Those classic running lines usually send a horse to the Iowa Derby rather than Saratoga, but trainer D. Wayne Lukas continued to believe he had a better horse than those finishes suggest. After all, in his last start before the Derby, Will Take Charge had won the Rebel over Oxbow, who went on to win the Preakness and run a strong second in the Belmont. He sent Will Take Charge out against Palace Malice in the Jim Dandy, took the blinkers off the colt, and Will Take Charge was a different horse: He looked eager every step of the way, mounted a nice rally around the stretch turn, and finished strongly to run second, beaten just a diminishing length by Palace Malice.

If this is the real Will Take Charge, I see no reason he should not continue to move forward with a race over the track under his girth and an extra furlong to work with in the Travers. He may not be as likely a winner as the three favorites, but he’s likelier than 10-1.

The inclination to back such a horse stems in part from a lack of confidence in the favorites, and I have my doubts about two of them. I have no knocks on Palace Malice – I just prefer to take a horse who was gaining on him last time and will be quadruple the price – but Verrazano and Orb seem less solid to me.

Verrazano, undefeated in seven starts with the exception of a dismal 14th in the Derby, comes off the powerhouse performance of the year in the Haskell: a 9 3/4-length romp over a slow Monmouth track that earned him a 116 Beyer Speed Figure, the best by any 3-year-old in 2013. He looked terrific drawing away as if added distance would be no problem, but his tepid competition barely showed up and his big finish may have been somewhat an optical illusion. He may well have the most raw talent in the field, but I want to see him do it again against more serious opposition.

Orb presents a different dilemma. He looked like the king of the crop with a smooth and dominant Derby victory, but after a flat fourth in the Preakness and a flat third in the Belmont, it’s fair to wonder if the wet track he caught at Churchill Downs was what made him look so good. He also comes into the Travers off an unconventional training regimen of gallops, a few breezes, and spa treatments at Fair Hill that might not have him tightly wound for a 10-furlong battle.

That may be somewhat by design, as he is penciled in for two more 10-furlong races of arguably greater importance. Much as the Travers may rearrange the pro-tem pecking order among the 3-year-olds, it does not conclude the sophomore season or the battle for the champion 3-year-old Eclipse Award. While we’ve had to settle for champion 3-year-olds who did nothing against older horses in the fall the last three years (I’ll Have Another, Animal Kingdom, Lookin At Lucky), racing works best when these horses compete and prove their real worth against their elders in races such as the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Verrazano, Palace Malice, and Orb all exited this Travers with those races as their fall goals and with something more to prove – preferably because Will Take Charge upsets them all on Saturday.