He exited the first leg of the Triple Crown with some already deeming him the chosen one of the sophomore class. By the time Orb completed the remaining classics, the premature coronation had given way to reality that the 3-year-old division still had multiple candidates capable of mounting a leadership campaign.
Verrazano and Palace Malice have already started strengthening their cases, with the former coasting to a 9 3/4-length victory in the Grade I Haskell Invitational on July 28, one day after his stablemate followed up his Belmont Stakes triumph with an equally sublime win in the Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes.
For the first time since the first Saturday in May, the above three will be in the starting gate together this Saturday for the 144th running of the Grade I Travers Stakes at Saratoga. And as was the case on May 4, Orb is going to need a bullish sustained run to complete this game of catch up.
After a couple of months out of the fray, Kentucky Derby winner Orb will get back to the matter of trying to reestablish his divisional standing. Stuart Janney III and Phipps Stable’s homebred will break from post No. 2 in a field of nine entered for Saturday’s $1 million Travers in what will be his first start since running third in the Belmont Stakes on June 8.
The impression Verrazano and Palace Malice have made in that time was further illustrated Wednesday when the Todd Pletcher-trained duo were installed as the 2-to-1 morning-line favorite and 5-to-2 second choice, respectively, over 4-to-1 third choice Orb.
An all out beast in his training leading up to his Kentucky Derby triumph, Orb became mortal in the five weeks that followed, running a disappointing fourth in the Preakness to the now injured Oxbow before finishing five lengths behind Palace Malice in the 1 1/2-miles Belmont.
With that, his Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey sent the son of Malibu Moon to Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland for a couple of months in hopes the bucolic surroundings would serve as a rejuvenating equine spa of sorts.
The horse McGaughey saw get off the van at Saratoga on August 11 struck him nearly as much as the one who brought the Twin Spires down for what was his fifth consecutive victory. He hopes such a tout proves a telling as it did in early May.
“I do think he’s much better. I think he kind of left me in June as a horse and he came back as a man,” McGaughey said. “He’s got a different look to him. He’s heavier but I think he’s heavier because he’s put on some muscle and he’s mentally very sharp now. I think our experiment (of going to Fair Hill) worked. We won’t know until Saturday afternoon but I think we’ve got a much better horse today than we had earlier in the year.”
Pletcher is just as confident Palace Malice and Verrazano have never been better – and he has the recent evidence to back it up.
Any notion Palace Malice’s 3 1/4-length Belmont Stakes win – his first graded score in eight starts at that point – would fall into the fluke category dissipated with his stalk-and-pounce one length triumph over fellow Travers entrant Will Take Charge in the Jim Dandy.
Before the wheels came off in the form of his 14th place finish in the Kentucky Derby, Verrazano had done nothing but ascend, going from maiden winner to Grade I Wood Memorial hero in four months.
While the Travers’ 10-furlong distance remains a question for his bloodlines, his Haskell exploits combined with his front-running 9 1/4 length win in the Pegasus Stakes on June 16 reaffirmed the son of More Than Ready’s prior status as arguably the most brilliant of the 3-year-old crop.
“In (Palace Malice’s) case, he’s gaining weight, he’s gotten bigger and stronger, more professional,” Pletcher said “Verrazano’s constitution, he’s very much the same kind of horse. We’re concerned we’re trying to match lifetime-best performances in four weeks. But everything we have seen in their training since the Jim Dandy and Haskell indicates they’re still in peak form.”
Being stuck inside the No. 1 post for the Preakness was widely seen as a source of Orb’s struggles that day with jockey Joel Rosario unable to get him clear enough to make the breath-stopping move he utilized in his Derby triumph. The bay colt will have a similar issue in the Travers with Verrazano to his outside in post No. 3 and Palace Malice favorably in post No. 8.
“If I’d have had the six or seven or eight (post) I probably would have been a little more happy…but we’ve got a long way to go.,” McGaughey said. “We can save some ground and, hopefully, there will be a pace where we can get out when the time comes.
“The Preakness and Belmont were obviously disappointments for us but hopefully Saturday we can win the race and everyone will be talking about Orb again.”
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.