08/22/2013 12:50PM

Travers Stakes: Verrazano can prove he's special

Barbara D. Livingston
Verrazano, seen training at Saratoga on Thursday, is the 2-1 morning-line favorite for Saturday's Grade 1, $1 million Travers Stakes.

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – There have been many instances when the best 3-year-old in the country was anything but special on Kentucky Derby Day.

In 1994, Holy Bull floundered in the Churchill Downs slop, finishing 12th in a 14-horse field. He never lost again that year and was the champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year. Point Given was fifth in the Derby in 2001, the only blemish in a 3-year-old campaign that saw him win five Grade 1 races en route to divisional and Horse of the Year honors.

Both horses won the Travers, Holy Bull discarding a rabbit early and holding off Concern late, and Point Given simply dominating an overmatched field. In the last 20 years, 11 horses who failed to win the Kentucky Derby were victorious in the Travers.

That brings us to Verrazano and Saturday’s 144th Travers Stakes at Saratoga. Deemed special from the New Year’s Day afternoon he won his debut by 7 3/4 lengths at Gulfstream Park, Verrazano’s only loss is a 14th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, where he spun his wheels in the slop. Since then, he has delivered dominant performances in the Grade 3 Pegasus and Grade 1 Haskell Invitational, adding to his previous scores in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby and Grade 1 Wood Memorial.

Verrazano enters the Travers as the 2-1 morning-line favorite against eight horses, including his stablemate Palace Malice, the Belmont Stakes and Jim Dandy Stakes winner; and Orb, the Kentucky Derby winner. Outside of the Derby, it is the toughest competition Verrazano has faced.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that this is a very, very strong race, and I think he’s coming up to it really well,” said Todd Pletcher, who trains Verrazano for the Lets Go Stable of Bryan Sullivan and Kevin Scatuorchio and the Coolmore connections of Michael Tabor, Susan Magnier, and Derrick Smith. “I think he’s a very good horse.”

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Verrazano earned his way into the Travers by virtue of his 9 3/4-length victory in the Haskell on July 28. While some will note that his final time of 1:50.68 for 1 1/8 miles was the slowest running of that race in 35 years, Pletcher will counter that it was a byproduct of the track surface.

“That was a very deep and demanding track that day, and he finished strongly on that type of track, so I don’t think a mile and a quarter should be an issue,” Pletcher said.

Verrazano will break from post 3 under John Velazquez, who most likely will try to navigate his way outside of the expected pacesetter, Moreno, who breaks from post 6 under Jose Ortiz. Verrazano, who has natural early speed, seems to prefer a target.

“I think he’s best-suited in a truly run race with a fast pace,” Pletcher said. “One of his strengths is he has a very high cruising speed, and he’s able to carry it.”

Palace Malice, Pletcher’s other entrant in the Travers, didn’t have the same type of winter and early spring as Verrazano, losing his first five starts, including the Kentucky Derby, in which he set a frenetic pace before finishing 12th.

But victories in the Belmont and Jim Dandy have put Palace Malice in the conversation for divisional honors. Six of the last eight editions of the Travers have been won by horses who competed in the Jim Dandy, five of whom won it.

Verrazano could seek to obtain the same stalking position that Palace Malice occupied in the Jim Dandy, where he stalked Moreno until midstretch before edging clear for a one-length victory. Palace Malice breaks from post 8 under Mike Smith.

Both Verrazano and Palace Malice will be making their eighth starts of the year. Pletcher believes the two have thrived despite their demanding campaigns.

“With both horses, it’s rare you go through these Triple Crown prep series, run in the Derby – and in Palace Malice’s case, the Belmont – and seem to get bigger and stronger and better as you’re doing it,” Pletcher said. “That’s the key to the really good ones. They’re able to withstand those types of campaigns and actually flourish while doing it.”

The Triple Crown campaign took its toll on Orb, who finished fourth in the Preakness and third in the Belmont after his Kentucky Derby score, which followed victories in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and the Florida Derby.

Orb spent the last two months at the Fair Hill Training Center, which his trainer, Shug McGaughey, believes helped the horse rebound physically and mentally. McGaughey, a three-time Travers-winning trainer, does not lack confidence heading into the race.

[TRAVERS STAKES: Get PPs, watch video updates from Saratoga]

“I think I’d be surprised if he got beat, the way he’s doing, going a mile and a quarter,” McGaughey said Thursday. “But if he puts in a good, solid effort and doesn’t get there, it’ll give us something to build on.”

Joel Rosario rides Orb from post 2.

“With Palace Malice and Verrazano, with their running style, he’s going to have to have them in their sights,” McGaughey said. “I would think he’ll ride him like Johnny [Velazquez] rode him in the Florida Derby.”

The one seemingly known variable is that the pacesetter in the Travers will be Moreno, the front-running winner of the Dwyer Stakes at Belmont and the pacesetter in the Jim Dandy, where he finished third. Trainer Eric Guillot believes the key to his gelding’s ability to get 1 1/4 miles is the early fractions.

“If I can get a 24-and-change, a 48-and-change, a 1:11-and-change, or 1:12, I think turning for home, I’ll be salty,” said Guillot, who trains the horse for owner Michael Moreno.

Will Take Charge ran sneaky well in the Kentucky Derby but didn’t follow up in the Preakness or Belmont. He did return with a late-rallying second in the Jim Dandy after trainer D. Wayne Lukas removed the blinkers.

Coming off a 113-day layoff, Transparent finished first in the Curlin Stakes here July 26 only to be disqualified for an incident at the quarter pole. Transparent has seemingly put foot issues behind him, and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin believes the son of 2006 Travers winner Bernardini will be ideally suited to the 1 1/4 miles of the Travers. Bernardini has sired recent Travers winners Stay Thirsty and Alpha, the latter trained by McLaughlin.

Romansh, who, like Transparent, is owned by Godolphin, is another son of Bernardini, trained by Tom Albertrani, who also trained Bernardini. He was elevated to first in the Curlin and has moved forward off that race, according to Albertrani.

War Dancer won the Virginia Derby at 1 1/4 miles but now must transfer his form from turf to dirt. Golden Soul was second in the Kentucky Derby but has been badly beaten twice since.

The Travers is the 12th race on a 14-race program that begins at 11:35 a.m. It is the final leg of an all-stakes pick four that includes the Test, Ballston Spa, and King’s Bishop and has a $1 million-guaranteed pool.

The Travers, Ballston Spa, and King’s Bishop will be televised live on NBC beginning at 4:30 p.m. Eastern.