Updated on 08/27/2013 9:17AM

Travers: Will Take Charge surges late to nose out Moreno

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Tom Keyser
Will Take Charge (2nd from left) defeats Moreno (2nd from right) in the Travers. Orb (right) finished third and Palace Malice (left) was fourth.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – D. Wayne Lukas began the week by putting Preakness winner Oxbow on a van home to Calumet Farm, not to race again this year, perhaps never again.

But the former basketball coach turned Hall of Fame trainer knows the value of a deep roster, and Lukas, nine days shy of his 78th birthday, ended the week with a victory in the Travers Stakes as Will Take Charge surged past stubborn pacesetter Moreno to win Saturday’s $1 million Travers by a nose before a crowd of 47,597 at Saratoga.

It was three-quarters of a length back to Kentucky Derby winner Orb, who nosed out Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice for third. They were followed in the order of finish by Romansh, War Dancer, Verrazano, the 8-5 favorite, Golden Soul, and Transparent.

It was a result, as Lukas said, that puts the 3-year-old division “in turmoil. I mean it’s upside down.”

It was the third victory in eight starts this year for Will Take Charge, who this winter at Oaklawn won the Smarty Jones in January and the Grade 3 Rebel in March. Will Take Charge, a son of Unbridled’s Song owned by Willis Horton, competed in all three Triple Crown races, running a troubled eighth in the Kentucky Derby before no-show efforts in the Preakness and Belmont.

[SARATOGA 2013: Complete meet coverage, exclusive DRF videos]

He did come to life with a second-place finish in the Jim Dandy before his 9-1 Travers upset.

It was the third victory in the Travers for Lukas, who won this race in 1991 with Corporate Report and 1995 with Thunder Gulch. He hadn’t participated in the race since 2002.

Following the Triple Crown, Lukas took the blinkers off of Will Take Charge for the Jim Dandy, where he came within a length of Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice. For the Travers, he made a rider switch from Junior Alvarado to Luis Saez.

“I just made the change and felt that it was in the best interest of what we’re trying to get done,” Lukas said. “You look terrible if it doesn’t work, but it’s sweet if it does.”

Saez, riding in his first Travers, kept Will Take Charge in fifth, just outside of Orb, but only about 4 1/2 lengths off the pace. Moreno, the pacesetter in the Jim Dandy, was able to get away with very soft fractions of 24.40 seconds for the quarter, 48.88 for the half-mile, and 1:13.43 for six furlongs.

Romansh was stalking from between horses, and Verrazano was stalking from well out in the track while racing in third. Palace Malice, who stalked Moreno in the Jim Dandy, was far back after slipping leaving the starting gate, according to jockey Mike Smith.

Moreno, 30-1 under Jose Ortiz, drifted slightly turning for home, leaving an opening for Orb and his jockey, Jose Lezcano, who was subbing for injured rider Joel Rosario, to come through and put a head in front at the eighth pole.

Saez had Will Take Charge right behind Moreno in midstretch before he was able to get him outside in the final sixteenth. Moreno kept trying, Orb was weakening, but Will Take Charge surged and got up in the final strides.

Will Take Charge covered the 1 1/4 miles in 2:02.68 and returned $21.20.

Lukas said he was thinking of his long-time client, Willis Horton, when the horses hit the finish line.

“It is the most wonderful feeling to be able to put somebody who put up his money, stayed by you, believed in you, to give them that moment,” Lukas said. “Three strides from the wire, the only thing I thought of was him and his wife.”

As exhilarating as the victory was for Lukas, it was deflating for trainer Eric Guillot, who sort of acted like the class clown the week leading up to the Travers with voodoo dolls of Todd Pletcher and a party at the barn. But on Saturday, there was genuine emotion in Guillot’s eyes and voice as he watched the replay of Moreno just getting nipped at the wire.

“Disappointed big time, I had to hold back the tears, it takes a lot to make Guillot cry,” Guillot said. “When I see [owner Mike Moreno] I’m going to break down and cry. Half a jump, right? Not even half a jump.”

Orb, making his first start since the Belmont Stakes, ran a credible third, making a brief lead before just faltering late.

“He ran a good race,” trainer Shug McGaughey said. “You can’t cry over spilled milk. We got him back on the right track.”

Palace Malice did well to finish within a length of the lead at the wire after breaking poorly and racing last through the first half-mile.

“He just lost his back legs leaving there, it happens,” Smith said. “I couldn’t do anything, I can’t go to the lead. All I could do was sit back there creep up, creep up, creep up, and see if I could get them. For a moment there, I thought I still had it. It was just too much to make up.”

Verrazano, the favorite off blow-out wins in the Pegasus and Haskell, was getting a beautiful trip early but at the half-mile pole jockey John Velazquez said he “came off the bridle. He just went through the motions.”

For Todd Pletcher, trainer of both Palace Malice and Verrazano, the result put a blemish on what has been a terrific meet, including a victory in the Grade 1 King’s Bishop with 28-1 shot Capo Bastone one race earlier.

“We would have liked to have won it, but we’ve had a great meet and we’re not going to cry about it,” Pletcher said. “We’ll regroup and try again.”