Intrigue Times Three - By Eric Mitchell

Three colts are charging down the stretch shoulder-to-shoulder toward 3-year-old championship honors. Glory is within the grasp of each, but who captures it will not be decided until Nov. 2 around 5:45 p.m. PDT at Santa Anita Park.

The fate of all three will be determined at this time (lengthy objection notwithstanding) in the wake of the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I). Two contenders will face each other in the Classic while the third will take a different route on the Breeders’ Cup World Championships’ Friday card and hope his challengers wilt on Saturday.

Travers Stakes (gr. I) winner Will Take Charge and Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Palace Malice are expected to line up in the Classic against a deep group of older horses including Game On Dude, who is undefeated in five graded stakes this year, and Fort Larned and Mucho Macho Man, who finished 1-2 in last year’s Classic.

Not much, at this point, separates the championship credentials of Will Take Charge and Palace Malice.

Palace Malice stands out for taking the Belmont over this year’s other classic winners—Orb, winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), and Oxbow, who won the Preakness Stakes (gr. I). Oxbow finished second in the Belmont by 3 1/4 lengths, with Orb another 3 1/4 lengths back in third. Palace Malice, a son of Curlin—Palace Rumor, by Royal Anthem, went on to beat Will Take Charge in the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) and to finish second to a freakishly good Ron the Greek in the Jockey Club Gold Cup Invitational Stakes (gr. I).

Between the Jim Dandy and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, however, is the race that could be a factor in crowning this year’s champion. Will Take Charge won the Travers by a nose over gutsy Dwyer Stakes (gr. II) winner Moreno, but behind them were Orb in third and Palace Malice in fourth.

Even farther back in the Travers’ final order of finish was our third challenger in the 3-year-old colt championship chase—Verrazano. The bay son of More Than Ready—Enchanted Rock, by Giant’s Causeway, finished sixth that August day at Saratoga Race Course. But the Travers loss hasn’t necessarily knocked Verrazano out of the chase.

Let’s go back for a moment to Will Take Charge, who grabbed the baton from Oxbow for the second half of the racing year and is helping maintain Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas’ enormously successful ride through 2013. The colt, by Unbridled’s Song—Take Charge Lady, by Dehere, has won four stakes so far this year, including three graded stakes—the Travers, Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II), and the Rebel Stakes (gr. II).

Right now Willis Horton’s Will Take Charge has a nose in front heading to the Eclipse Awards, having beaten both Palace Malice and Verrazano in the Travers. Head-to-head competition is important in deciding champions, and though Will Take Charge was second to Palace Malice in the Jim Dandy, reversing the tables in the more prestigious Mid-Summer Derby carries more weight.

A victory in the Classic would assuredly seal the deal for Will Take Charge; even a close second or third may be enough if Dogwood Stable’s Palace Malice runs off the board.

If Palace Malice wins the Classic and Will Take Charge is nowhere near the wire, he would land the Eclipse trophy. The colt, trained by Todd Pletcher, would then own two grade I stakes in two of the country’s highest-profile races.

Verrazano is the spoiler in the wings. Owned by Let’s Go Stable, Michael Tabor, Susan Magnier, and Derrick Smith, Verrazano will face his Breeders’ Cup World Championships test in the Dirt Mile (gr. I). While not exactly a race known for christening champions, a victory in the Dirt Mile would give Verrazano his third grade I victory (he also won the William Hill Haskell Invitational and the Wood Memorial Stakes) and his fifth graded stakes win of the year. If Will Take Charge and Palace Malice are both also-rans in the Classic and Verrazano runs away with the Dirt Mile, then a race known more for longshot upsets may get its first champion.

It is an intriguing showdown. Pletcher also trains Verrazano and is a former Lukas protégé; a star pupil who already holds five national trainer titles having chased down his mentor, who has four national titles of his own.

Such scenarios are what everyone hopes for in an end-of-season championship, and this year Breeders’ Cup will deliver.

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