SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — A little tinkering by Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas paid off in a big way in the $1 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course.
Will Take Charge, with a new rider in Luis Saez, caught Moreno in the final stride and won racing’s Mid-Summer Derby by a nose to give the 77-year-old Lukas his third Travers win and first since 1995.
Lukas called a jockey audible during the week and chose the 21-year-old Saez over Junior Alvarado to ride Will Take Charge in a race that was supposed to be a three-horse showdown between Kentucky Derby winner Orb, and two of trainer Todd Pletcher’s stars, Haskell Invitational winner and favorite Verrazano and the Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice.
“I changed up a few things,” Lukas said, flashing a broad smile. “I took a chance on an up and coming rider. You look terrible if it doesn’t work, but it’s sweet if it does.
“I thought my horse trained well, but these things are so tough. This is a horse who is going to get better. He’s getting his act together.”
And so is Lukas, who is having a sensational season with his 3-year olds. After going 13 years without a Triple Crown race win, he pulled one off with Oxbow in the Preakness. With Oxbow out with an injury, up stepped Will Take Charge, a colt who ran in all three Triple Crown races but failed to hit the board in any of them.
“They were reminding me it’s been a long time between drinks, but when they come like this, they come double,” Lukas said. “It feels pretty good.”
With Jose Lezcano aboard Orb for the first time as a replacement for the injured Joel Rosario (broken bone in his left foot), the Derby winner made a strong move for the lead in the stretch and finished third behind Moreno in his first race since finishing third in the Belmont.
“You can’t cry over spilled milk,” said Orb’s trainer, Shug McGaughey. “We got him back on the right track, and now we’ll point for something else.”
Palace Malice, who won the Jim Dandy at the Spa last month, got off to a poor start and fell way behind the leaders and finished fourth under Mike Smith. Verrazano, with John Velazquez riding, stalked the leaders as usual but ended up seventh for just his second loss in eight starts.
Will Take Charge was the 9-1 fourth betting choice of the crowd of 47,597 on a gorgeous, sunny day. The son of Unbridled’s Song ran 1¼ miles in 2:02.68, and paid $21.20, $8.60 and $5.20. Moreno, with Jose Ortiz aboard, returned $25.40 and $8.60. Orb paid $4.30 to show.
Romansh was fifth, followed by War Dancer, Verrazano, Golden Soul and Transparent.
As expected Moreno led from the start and still held the lead heading into the stretch. On the inside, though, Orb made his move for the front. But Will Take Charge came barreling down the stretch, pulled even with Moreno on the outside in the final yards and nudged ahead at the wire.
“I want to say thanks to God, Lukas and everyone who’s coming here to see these champions,” Saez said after his first Travers ride. “Last time, when he finished second (in the Jim Dandy), I saw the replays and I knew how to ride him.”
Eric Guillot, who trains Moreno, thought his gelding just might pull off a huge upset.
“Brutal, huh?” he asked. “Last jump. He couldn’t have done any better.”
Will Take Charge earned $600,000 for owner Willis Horton, and increased his career earnings to $1,265,371 with his fourth win in 12 starts.
A few days before the Travers, Lukas talked about how much he enjoys competing in the top races.
“I love the big ones,” he said. “I love to get in that main arena and try to pull it off.”
He did it again in the Travers.
On the undercard, 28-1 shot Capo Bastone won the $500,000 King’s Bishop, Sweet Lulu took the $500,000 Test Stakes, and Laughing won the $250,000 Ballston Spa.