SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - No member of the animal kingdom can match the thoroughbred's beauty, power and grace. Unfortunately, fragility is part of the package, and it's depressing how few standout 3-year-olds stay sound enough to compete at 4. Fortunately, that's not the case for rivals Palace Malice and Will Take Charge.
These veterans of last year's Travers will meet for the sixth time Saturday in Saratoga's $1.5-million Whitney Stakes, the field of which resembles that of a Breeders' Cup Classic. Palace Malice, front-runner for Horse of the Year and the 77th Whitney's even-money favorite, leads last year's 3-year-old champ, two wins to one.
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Will Take Charge, the 4-1 second choice, is 1-for-5 (three seconds) this year, which doesn't faze his Hall of Fame trainer, 78-year-old D. Wayne Lukas. "We're the champion until someone dethrones us," he said. "We earned it last year. I think he has an affinity for this racetrack, so I feel comfortable."
Palace Malice is 4-for-4 this year and 2-for-3 in his career at the Spa, with the loss a bad-trip fourth in the Travers. Despite a poor start, he missed by only three-quarters of a length to Will Take Charge, who nosed out front-running Moreno, whom they'll have to catch again Saturday.
"I felt like we let a Travers slip away from us," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "He didn't break well, spotted the field many lengths and came away last, and the fractions weren't real fast. I thought he ran a great race to almost overcome that."
The Travers was a fork in the road for Will Take Charge, who found the right path, and Palace Malice, who fell short again in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (second) and Classic (sixth). "He missed the break again in the Classic," Pletcher said. "The biggest difference this year is he hasn't made those kinds of mistakes."
Will Take Charge became a force after flopping in the Kentucky Derby (eighth), Preakness (seventh) and Belmont (10th). He ran second to Palace Malice in the Jim Dandy before using his Travers breakthrough as a springboard to the 3-year-old Eclipse Award. He came within a nose of sweeping the Classic, the Pennsylvania Derby and Clark Handicap.
"Last year we saw a real change in him up here," Lukas said. "He's gotten better and stronger, and I think he's the best horse in the country right now. This is a wonderful field, and it's probably going to be one of the first of many going into the fall."
Departing (6-1) is 7-for-11. Romansh was only 11/2 lengths behind Palace Malice in the Met Mile. Moreno is 2-for-19 but has hit the board in seven stakes. Last year's Preakness runner-up, Itsmyluckyday (12-1), is 3-for-3 since returning from a leg injury. Another with Saratoga credentials is 20-1 Golden Ticket, who dead-heated for the win with Alpha in the 2012 Travers. Dale Romans trains 20-1 Prayer for Relief.
"It's going to be the toughest field he's faced," Romans said. "It's a very prestigious race, and that's why it's worth so much to a stallion career if you win it."