Haskin's Belmont Recap: Malice in Wonderland

If this year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and Preakness Stakes taught us anything it is that Thoroughbred racing has its own unique way of transporting the past into the present, recycling great achievements and sometimes surpassing them.

In the Derby and Preakness, we saw how names like Phipps, Janney, and McGaughey, and Lukas and Stevens, whose major accomplishments were believed to be in the past, came together to weave a stunning tapestry of the Turf, as fresh and contemporary as if it had been crafted in their younger days.

Go back to May, 1990. The founder of racehorse syndicates, 62-year-old Cot Campbell, stands in his box at Pimlico and shouts at the top of his lungs, “Go on with him!...Go on with him!...Go on with him!” As his colt, Summer Squall, crosses the finish line, defeating Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled in the 115th Preakness Stakes, Campbell utters a few impious words and unleashes a flurry of left hooks into an invisible opponent.

“Wasn’t that great?” he asks no one in particular. “Oh, boy, I’m so glad for all of us. If this doesn’t make everyone happy, nothing will. I’ll never forget this moment. It’ll take about three months for it to sink in.”

Now go back to June, 2007. Perennial leading trainer Todd Pletcher, burdened with an 0-for-28 record in Triple Crown races, stands in his box at Belmont Park and shouts at the top of his lungs, “Come on, baby!...Come on, baby!” while unleashing a flurry of eight short jabs into that same invisible opponent. As his filly, Rags to Riches, crosses the finish line a neck in front of budding superstar Curlin in the 130th Belmont Stakes, Pletcher flings his fist in the air and kisses his wife Tracy, knocking her hat off.

Normally, those moments would remain frozen in time in some hallowed corner of one’s memory. But this is Thoroughbred racing, where rejuvenation is part of the natural order of things.

So, we move to June 8, 2013. Cot Campbell, now 85, and Todd Pletcher, with a long-awaited Kentucky Derby victory now added to his extensive resume, stand in their respective boxes at Belmont Park. Both simultaneously break into their theatrical repertoires as Palace Malice, trained by Pletcher and owned by Campbell’s Dogwood Stable, draws clear of his opponents, including Kentucky Derby winner Orb and Preakness winner Oxbow, to win the 145th Belmont Stakes.

The sire of Palace Malice: Curlin, the horse that Pletcher defeated six years earlier with Rags to Riches.

For Pletcher, this one was especially gratifying, as it was Campbell who was one of the trainer’s earliest clients after going out on his own after a number of years as assistant to Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas. The horse who finished second to Palace Malice in the Belmont: Oxbow, trained by D. Wayne Lukas.

It should also be noted that Pletcher’s first major impact on the classics came in 2000 when he finished third in the Kentucky Derby. The horse who gave him his first classic placing: Impeachment, owned by Dogwood Stable.

Campbell and Pletcher have come full circle, at least for now. As the big summer and fall races approach and Palace Malice continues to mature, perhaps the circle will continue.     

Both owner and trainer have added their own chapter to the annals of the Triple Crown, but they will be the first to tell you it’s all about the horse, and if ever a horse deserved to bask in the limelight on the classic stage it is Palace Malice, who has persevered through bad trips, failed equipment changes, altered schedules, and four jockey changes since late February.

Palace Malice’s story actually begins well before he was even born and demonstrates the intricate network of events that dictate the course one takes in life, even to the extent of being born. In the case of Palace Malice, it was a simple, but fateful, decision by Burl McBride, the trainer of the colt’s dam, Palace Rumor, that led her son to the winner’s circle of the Belmont Stakes.  

On Nov. 5, 2005, McBride shipped his 2-year-old filly Palace Rumor from his barn at Ellis Park to Churchill Downs to compete in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race on the grass, sending her to the barn of his friend Hal Wiggins. McBride had seven other horses at Ellis Park because he was unable to get stalls at Churchill.

Palace Rumor , a daughter of Royal Anthem, had been purchased as a weanling at the Keeneland November mixed sale for $8,000, then was pinhooked the following year to the Keeneland September yearling sale, where she sold as Hip 4602 for a meager $5,000 to McBride, representing Corbet Bryant and Tim Gavin.

Making the fifth start of her career in the Churchill allowance race, Palace Rumor, who had broken her maiden by 5 1/2 lengths at Kentucky Downs, rallied from 11th to finish fifth. McBride was about to van her back to Ellis Park after the race, but had second thoughts and decided to keep her at Churchill overnight.

“I ran her that day and she had a real tiring race, so I said, ‘You know what, I’m just gonna let her rest and spend the night at Churchill and I’ll take her back in the morning,’” McBride said. “I had borrowed a stall from Hal Wiggins to run her out of and I just kept her there that night.”

At around 2 a.m., McBride received a phone call and was told his barn was gone. A tornado had ripped through the backstretch at Ellis Park, destroying six barns. Most of the trainers had shipped out, either to Churchill or other tracks, but McBride was one of the few who still had horses there.

Of McBride’s seven horses, three were dead and four were so badly injured, none of them ever raced again. For a trainer with a small stable, it was a devastating blow. In a heartbeat, McBride was wiped out, except for his one 2-year-old filly who had the good fortune of having raced at Churchill Downs that afternoon and the even better fortune of remaining in Louisville overnight.

“That tornado took half the grandstand, too,” McBride said. “Just like that, I only had one horse left. I was ready to quit, but Hal made me come back. If I had hauled her home that night, she’d probably be dead with the rest of them.”

In 2008, Palace Rumor, who went on to win four more races, including the Audubon Oaks, for McBride, was put in the Keeneland January mixed sale, where she was purchased by William S. Farish for $140,000.

The story doesn’t end there. It was McBride, a former jockey, who took a fellow New Mexican named Mike Smith under his wing.

“I put Mike Smith on horses before he started winning races,” McBride said. “He’s from Roswell, N.M. and I’m from Alamagordo. I quit riding in 1980 and that’s when Mike came around. My agent brought him out when he was bug boy. He rode some nice winners for me. I was there when he won the Derby with Giacomo and I was there when he won the Breeders’ Cup with Royal Delta. He’s a good friend of mine. I always called him an illegal alien because he was born in Roswell.”

So, of course, who was given the mount on Palace Malice in the Kentucky Derby and rode him to victory at Belmont?

Mike Smith getting the mount on Palace Malice was just one of many coincidences surrounding this colt.

On Sept. 18, 2011, Palace Malice arrived at Niall Brennan’s farm, having just been purchased at the Keeneland September yearling sale for $25,000. Also arriving from the sale at the same time was a War Pass colt, purchased for $80,000, later to be pinhooked and named Revolutionary. Already at Brennan’s farm, arriving on July 30, was a Malibu Moon colt, owned and bred by Stuart Janney III and the Phipps family, later to be named Orb.

Those three colts would go on to win the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, and finish third in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont and fifth in the Belmont.

“Three talented colts in the same group, and we’re just lucky enough to be along for the ride,” Brennan said. “Palace Malice was May 2 foal, so it was surprising to see him showing his talent so early as a 2-year-old, but Tristan (assistant Barry) told me when I was up at Saratoga he was doing super and was one of their better 2-year-olds. He always did things effortlessly and showed off that talent right away.”

Palace Malice was consigned to the Keeneland April 2-year-old sale and caught the eye of Cot Campbell, who purchased him for $200,000. After a brief stay with Ron Stevens at Aiken for his early training, he was sent to Pletcher.

“He was a high-class horse from the day he got here,” Stevens recalled. “He was very mature, classy, and professional for his age, and he took to everything right away. He was push-button, and it didn’t take a genius to train him.”

Palace Malice, who was bred by Farish, was so precocious, despite being a late foal, he debuted on July 5 going five furlongs and was beaten a half-length by a speedy colt named Carried Interest, who was yet another 2-year-old at Brennan’s farm.

Around this time, Campbell announced he was retiring, or more like “semi-retiring,” from syndicating horses and began cutting back on his stable, from about 65 horses to between 30 and 35. Campbell had left a legacy that changed the entire infrastructure of racing, bringing in thousands of new owners through the numerous syndicates that have followed the path Dogwood Stable started.

Campbell quickly realized that retirement was not an option. A young talented horse like Palace Malice will bring you back to your senses in a hurry. Campbell said he was merely cutting back on his operation.

“I must have been having a bad week,” Campbell said with that familiar grin and twinkle in his eye. There are few things more distinctive in racing than Campbell’s voice stringing together a symphony of words as comforting as a southern breeze.

“I don’t think (winning the Belmont) is going to accelerate my retirement, I’ll put it that way,” Campbell continued. “Syndicating horses has always made sense to me, but in the early days the establishment looked down on it a little bit. They thought it was a break from tradition, which it certainly was. And racing was not one to embrace a break from tradition. All I know is that I’m enjoying life. I’m a lucky guy. I’ve had a wonderful, exciting, and colorful life, and I love what I do.”

Accompanying Campbell every step of his incredible journey is his wife Anne, whose ebullience is contagious. Regarding her husband’s so-called retirement, Anne said, “You can retire from a job, but can you retire from a way of life?”

The more Palace Malice progressed the farther removed the word retirement became. An impressive maiden victory at Saratoga followed, but sore shins kept him out the remainder of the year.

He returned 5 1/2 months later to finish a solid second to the quick-footed Majestic Hussar in a seven-furlong allowance race in the slop at Gulfstream. That began a series of races in which the colt was asked to do things few 3-year-olds are asked, and he never as much as flinched.

In the 1 1/16-mile Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, he was the only horse in the 12-horse field that had never been two turns and he was coming off one sprint in 6 1/2 months. With Rosie Napravnik aboard for the first time, Palace Malice, ran his heart out, only to finish third, beaten a half-length. The Louisiana Derby a month later was a disaster. With Edgar Prado now his rider, he was moving strongly and looked like a potential winner, only to get trapped behind horses the entire stretch run and was never allowed to run at any point.

With not nearly enough points to make the Kentucky Derby field, the only alternative was to run him back in two weeks in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes over Keeneland’s quirky Polytrack surface. This time he had Garrett Gomez aboard and had to do all the dirty work chasing the brilliant Rydilluc. He managed to take command, but apparently became distracted by the tractor tire marks on the track and lost focus, switching back to his left lead. He still battled to the wire, but was nipped in the final stride by the late-closing Java’s War. He had lost another race, but now had enough points to get in the Derby.

But he once again needed a new rider, and Pletcher obtained the services of Mike Smith, who flew in to work the colt. Following the work, in which he wore blinkers for the first time, Smith went into the media center to check the training board and could barely contain his enthusiasm.

“He worked great, but what I really loved was his gallop-out,” Smith said. “Coming back the entire way until I got off him he wanted to do more. Even when the pony came I was still trying to slow him down. He’s a strong sonofagun; there’s a lot to him. When I turned him around after the gallop-out he took off again and I had to go ‘Whoa.’ I’ll tell you one thing, the farther the better.”

Back at the barn, Campbell could start smelling the roses, having previously run second, third, and fourth in the Derby.

“If there are Derby gods, they better get on with it,” he said. “There are more Derbys in my past than there are in my future.”

Said Anne, “What’s exciting is that we still don’t have any idea how good this horse is.”

Unfortunately, the Derby turned into another disaster, as the blinkers experiment backfired badly. Pletcher’s instructions to Smith were to get him out of there and get a good position, but according to Smith, when he did get him out of there, “he was gone.” The colt proceeded to set suicidal fractions that killed off not only him, but every horse anywhere near him.”

With the Preakness coming too soon, only the Belmont Stakes was left for Palace Malice to get a little luck and show off his talent on the big stage.

“If he has an absence of bad luck we’ll be alright,” Campbell said. “I’m not asking or any breaks. I just don’t want any breaks against him.”

The first positive sign was a sensational work and gallop-out two weeks before the race, after which Pletcher said, “I don’t know that I’ve ever had a horse work any better.”

Also working that day were four potential Belmont starters owned by Mike Repole. When asked his thought on the works, Repole said. “My thoughts are I wish I owned Palace Malice.”

On Belmont morning, the skies cleared around 6 o’clock and the first patches of blue appeared following the previous day’s tropical storm. Pletcher put the final touches on his five-horse arsenal that consisted of Palace Malice, Revolutionary, and the Repole trio of Overanalyze, Unlimited Budget, and Midnight Taboo. With the main track open to Belmont Stakes horses from 6 to 6:30, Shug McGaughey brought Orb out for a gallop around the dogs on the sloppy sealed track.

“I’ll be glad when the day’s over with,” he said. “It’s a bit distracting training your other horses. When we were in Louisville and Baltimore, I tried to keep myself focused on my other horses, but you get so wrapped up in the one horse.”

The conclusion of the Triple Crown also meant that Orb’s co-owner Stuart Janney III could finally get a good night’s sleep. “I’ve probably slept well four nights since before the Derby,” he said. “I’ll wake up at four in the morning and start thinking too much. There’s so much pressure and so many people depending on you.”

Over at Barn 5, Wayne Lukas, who had Oxbow and Will Take Charge, sat on a chair in the shedrow and was exuding confidence in both his horses, especially the indefatigable Oxbow, who hadn’t had more than five weeks between races since last October.

“This horse always shows up and Gary (jockey Stevens) is over the moon,” Lukas said. “They’ll have him to deal with.”

Orb was made the 2-1 favorite, followed by Revolutionary at 5-1 and Peter Pan (gr. II) winner Freedom Child 8-1. Everyone else was double-digit odds, with Oxbow a generous 10-1, along with Overanalyze, and Palace Malice 13-1.

Frac Daddy’s trainer Kenny McPeek assured his colt would gun to the front from the rail and if anyone wanted to take him on he’ll welcome the challenge. Frac Daddy was indeed hustled out of there, followed closely by Freedom Child and Oxbow. Mike Smith broke alertly on Palace Malice, but this time the colt, without the blinkers, relaxed much better and tucked in several paths to avoid going wide into the first turn.

Around the turn and into the backstretch, it was obvious the pace was a demanding one, as Orb and Golden Soul dropped to the back of the pack. The opening fractions of :23.11 and :46.66 were extremely fast going a mile and a half, with Frac Daddy, Freedom Child, and Oxbow getting separation from Palace Malice, who was also going fast, but had settled into a good rhythm, with his ears pricked.

“I was keeping a close eye on Gary (Stevens) to make sure he didn’t try to steal it again at some point,” Smith said. “Gary has been known to do stuff like that.”

When the three-quarter fraction of 1:10.95 went up, and with still half the race to go, it didn’t bode well for anyone near the pace. Frac Daddy and then Freedom Child began backing up, leaving Oxbow and Palace Malice to battle it out well clear of the others. Revolutionary had begun his move and appeared to be a strong horse as he charged up into fourth, with Orb launching his bid around horses, losing ground around the far turn.

Palace Malice was the stronger of the two horses and took a half-length lead into the stretch, with Oxbow three lengths clear of Revolutionary and Orb.

“It was like movie scene,” Smith said. “Gary looked over to me and I could see his face clear as day. He says, ‘Go on, little brother, you’re moving better than me.’”

Palace Malice was moving better than anyone, opening a two-length lead at the eighth pole and then extending it to 3 1/4 lengths at the wire. Oxbow, in another gutsy performance, finished a clear-cut second, 1 3/4 lengths ahead of Orb, who finished a length ahead of the regally bred Incognito.

“I’m so proud of this colt,” Stevens said. “I thought I was dead midway down the backside. They were suicidal fractions and he never got any break. To finish second, I’m really surprised. He galloped out after the race like you wouldn’t believe.”

Revolutionary was unable to sustain his run, settling for fifth. The early fractions did take their toll, as evidenced by the final time of 2:30.70.

Pletcher said this was an emotional win because of Campbell. “He supported me from the very beginning and to win a big race for him is really gratifying.”

McGaughey said it was a fun ride and he has no problems with the way the Triple Crown played out. He won the race he wanted, but his only regret was not having Orb run better in the Preakness and Belmont.

On the winner’s side, there was nothing but joy and exultation. “I cannot believe this,” said Anne Campbell, who was overcome with emotion. “I’m just so happy for Cot. We knew the horse was capable of doing this. Cot never lost faith in him. Most of the time you’re disappointed, and for this to happen now at this stage of his career it makes it all the more special. And he has not retired. This will give him a whole new life.”

The one disappointment was not having their daughter Lila there. “Her flight was canceled,” Anne said. “She was on the phone weeping and crying.”

Lila watched the race from her home in Atlanta and admits to having mixed feelings.

“It was an emotional roller coaster, and I was sick with regret not being there,” Lila said. “I was standing in front of the TV screaming my head off, knowing this likely was my dad’s last shot at the gold ring. I adore him and am thankful for the life he’s given me. I’m so proud I could bust. I’m about to start crying again just thinking about it.”

Paul Oreffice has been a partner in Dogwood Stable for 25 years and invests in every horse. He makes it a point to mention he is 63 days younger than Campbell and refers to him as “the old man.” Oreffice and his wife, Jo Ann, were among the last to leave the Directors Room. They had hired a car and driver for the day and were about to leave for their trip home to Saratoga. But their mode of transportation didn’t matter, because as Jo Ann stated, “We’re going to float all the way home.”

No one, however, was more excited and proud watching Palace Malice come down the stretch than Burl McBride.

“Oh, my God, I had tears in my eyes when that horse crossed the wire.” he said. “I’ve been braggin’ on that mare for years and I’ve been braggin’ on this colt. Well I don’t have to brag on him anymore, because the whole world knows who he is. I can finally shut up. From now on, people can just look at my face and know what I’m thinking and feeling.”

It was only fitting that McBride watched the Belmont at Ellis Park, where this amazing story began so tragically, only to end in triumph nearly eight years later.

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