By Jay Privman DRF.com
ELMONT, N.Y. – It was an illuminating day at Belmont Park. The sun came out, and the light went on.
After a storm pummeled the area Friday, the sun shined bright on the old New York home of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday afternoon. And Palace Malice added to the wattage, the light finally coming on for a colt held in high regard for months by his trainer, Todd Pletcher.
Palace Malice, with just one win to his credit from seven prior starts, and having most recently run like a scared cat in the Kentucky Derby, put it all together in the 145th Belmont, powering home by 3 1/4 lengths to beat the Preakness winner, Oxbow, who was second, and Orb, the Kentucky Derby winner, who was third.
Oxbow finished 1 3 /4 lengths in front of Orb, who was one length in front of Incognito. Revolutionary was fifth and was followed, in order, by the filly Unlimited Budget, Overanalyze, Vyjack, Golden Soul, Will Take Charge, Giant Finish, Midnight Taboo, Freedom Child, and Frac Daddy.
Palace Malice ($29.60), the seventh choice in the field of 14, completed 1 1/2 miles on the fast main track in 2:30.70.
“I felt like he had a big one in him,” Pletcher said. “I kept waiting for it to materialize in the afternoon.”
As far back as last summer, Pletcher thought Palace Malice was one of his best – if not his best – 2-year-olds. Earlier this year, after Palace Malice had turned 3 and started down the trail toward the Kentucky Derby, Pletcher would privately advise that Palace Malice should be strongly considered for inclusion on Daily Racing Form’s Derby Watch. Told prior to his second start this year that Palace Malice would not make the cut that week, Pletcher replied, “You’ll have him on the list after he wins the Risen Star.”
But Palace Malice could only finish third in the Risen Star. Then he had a traffic-filled trip in the Louisiana Derby, in which he was seventh. Wheeled back two weeks later, he was second in the Blue Grass. And in the Derby, with blinkers added for the first time, Palace Malice set surprisingly swift fractions before tiring to finish 12th of 19.
The blinkers came off for the Belmont, jockey Mike Smith stayed on, and Palace Malice continued to train strongly. Pletcher said his penultimate work for the Belmont was one of the best of any horse he’s ever trained, and this week, his top assistant, Michael McCarthy, said, “This horse has a big one in him.”
Palace Malice received a perfect, stalking trip under Smith. He was fourth, four paths wide, turning up the backstretch, on the outside, while Frac Daddy and Oxbow zipped through a 46.66-second opening half-mile, the second-fastest in the history of the race, behind only the pace set by Secretariat in his otherworldly 1973 performance.
As the field advanced toward and then went around the far turn, Frac Daddy dropped away, leaving Oxbow to try and fend off Palace Malice. Smith said that Gary Stevens, aboard Oxbow, realized his horse could not keep up and said, “You go on with it.”
Palace Malice gradually increased his advantage, to two lengths passing the eighth pole, and 3 1/2 at the wire.
Oxbow, despite what Stevens called “suicidal fractions,” courageously held second, leaving Stevens to call him “one of the bravest horses I’ve ever ridden.”
Orb was in front of just one horse the first half-mile of the race, but the pace of the Belmont was reminiscent of the race shape he encountered in the Derby. He made a prolonged run into and then around the far turn, but could not finish it off, despite a final quarter-mile that was run in 27.58.
“He just ran okay,” said Shug McGaughey, who trains Orb, who went off as the 2-1 favorite. “He made a good run around the turn, but we had given up so much. The speed horses held on up front, and we just couldn’t catch them.”
For Smith, 47, this was his second Belmont win, following Drosselmeyer in 2010. He finished second in 2012 with Paynter, completing a Triple Crown series in which he finished second in all three legs.
“God has a way of making you patient,” Smith said. “Today was our day.”
The Belmont win also was the second for Pletcher, 45, who won with the filly Rags to Riches in 2007. Pletcher sent out five horses in this Belmont and finished first, fifth, sixth, seventh, and 12th.
Coincidentally, the horse Rags to Riches narrowly defeated in that Belmont, Curlin, is the sire of Palace Malice. Pletcher trains Palace Malice for the Dogwood Stable syndicate run by Cot Campbell, 85, who was one of the first to support Pletcher when he left the employ of D. Wayne Lukas nearly 18 years ago.
“It was an emotional win for me because of the Dogwood connection,” Pletcher said. “They supported me from the very beginning, and to win a big race for them is really gratifying.”
Palace Malice earned $600,000 from the $1 million purse to bring his lifetime total to $871,135. Palace Malice was purchased as a 2-year-old in training for $200,000 in April 2012 at Keeneland. This was Dogwood’s second win in a Triple Crown race, following the 1990 Preakness with Summer Squall.
Campbell called this “the mother of all great moments.”
Belmont Park was hit by nearly 3 1/2 inches of rain during a massive storm that lasted into Friday night and Saturday morning. The main track was sealed before racing on Friday by compacting the sandy surface and was closed to training Saturday morning for all but Belmont Stakes runners.
At the start of the day, the track was rated muddy, but it had a firm bottom because of the seal. After the fifth race, it was dry enough to be harrowed, and the track was upgraded to good. By the time of the Belmont, it was fast, and Palace Malice was fastest.