With Palace Malice, it’s not about how fast he is; it’s not
about he stacks up in the Breeders’ Cup Classic; and it’s not about where he
ranks among the top 3-year-olds. In fact, it’s not even about how good he is. All
that is opinion, and like all horses, he’s going to have his fans and
With Palace Malice it is all about admiration. Regardless of
how you feel about his ability, his brilliance, his competition, and all the
other factors used in determining the merits of horse, you have to admire the
colt for what he has accomplished, despite bad trips, failed experiments,
altered schedules, and downright rotten luck.
Now, there will be skeptics who lump all that into the
category of forced excuses and adhere to the philosophy that good horses don’t
need excuses. That may very well be true, but it is just possible that we have
yet to meet the real Palace Malice and simply don’t know just how good he
really is or how good he’s going to be.
And again, this is about admiration and nothing more. Let’s
first take into consideration that in an era of conservative training, and with
having a relatively conservative trainer himself, he has managed to race in
January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, and September – yes,
that’s every month this year.
Should his record be better than it is? Definitely, through
no fault of his own. Just when it looked as if he had a big shot to win the
Jockey Club Gold Cup and knock off top-class older horses over a track and
distance, and trip, to his liking, he ran into one of those occasional freaky
performances by Ron the Greek, who has been known to shed his glasses, rip off
his suit, and leap tall buildings in a single bound when you least expect it.
So, Palace Malice, despite finishing a clear-cut second,
beaten 6 3/4 lengths, still winds up running a time that would have won the
last nine Jockey Club Gold Cups. And according to Trakus, he ran 67 feet
farther that Ron the Greek, which equates to 7.8 lengths, more than he was
Let’s back up one race to the Travers. Sent off at 2-1
coming off a brilliant victory in the Jim Dandy Stakes over Will Take Charge in
a sharp 1:47 1/5, he stumbles coming out of the gate and instead of being right
up there on the pace, as expected, he drops back to last in the nine-horse
field, while front-running Moreno is allowed to get away with sloth-like
fractions of :48 4/5 and 1:13 2/5. Despite coming home in :23 4/5 and :24 2/5,
he has to settle for fourth, beaten only three-quarters of a length by Will
Take Charge, whom he had just beaten, while missing third by only a nose. The
majority of experts maintain he was the best horse in the race.
OK, we all know about the Belmont Stakes, in which he put
everything together, had a beautiful trip, and dominated his field, winning off
by 3 1/4 lengths, beating the Preakness winner and Kentucky Derby winner, who
finished second and third, respectively, with no excuses.
Now, let’s back up to the beginning to see how Palace Malice
got to where he is now.
In his first start of the year, a seven-furlong allowance in
the slop at Gulfstream, he ran into a mud-loving speedball named Majestic
Hussar, finishing a solid second in a quick 1:22 2/5. A good start to his
Triple Crown campaign.
Next came the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds. He dropped
back to ninth after a half mile, put in a strong rally four wide turning for
home and finished third, beaten only a half-length after a three-horse stretch
duel. Considering, of the 12 horses in the race, he was the only one who had
never been two turns and had only that one sprint in the slop in the past 6 1/2
months it was an excellent effort. Step two completed in good order.
Now came the Louisiana Derby. This was the race in which he
was ready to run lights out. He was sent off at 7-2 in the 14-horse field, with
Edgar Prado up for the first time. Racing along the inside in eighth early, but
close enough to the pace, he launched his bid on the turn, moving effortlessly
into fourth and about to collar the leaders, but ran into traffic backing up
into him and was forced to steady and lose his position at a crucial point.
Prado then asked him for another run in the stretch and he moved strongly into
contention and again appeared ready to charge to the lead when he got stopped
cold behind a wall of horses that
closed up on him. The DRF comment was “Stymied from 5/16 pole to 1/8 pole.” He
wound up seventh, bottled up in traffic almost all the way to the wire with no
place at all to run. This was a total throw-out race and created a major
problem in regard to getting in the Kentucky Derby.
There was no way he was going to get in the Derby with the
meager earnings he had from his third in the Risen Star. So it was desperation
time for Pletcher and Cot Campbell. Their only recourse was to try to pick up
enough earnings in the Blue Grass Stakes, even though Palace Malice had never
run on Polytrack, which a good number of dirt horses despised. Keeneland was
littered with top-class dirt horses who floundered over the Polytrack.
In the Blue Grass, now with Garret Gomez up, his fourth
jockey in his last four races, he did all the dirty work chasing the highly
touted Rydilluc, who had been unbeatable on the grass. He was the only horse to
challenge Rydilluc on the far turn, eventually putting him away. His effort,
however, had taken its toll over that track, and he began switching leads and
drifting in the stretch. Still he fought hard to the wire and was just nipped
in the final stride by the late-closing Java’s War, who had finished a close
third at Keeneland the year before in the grade I Breeders’ Futurity. It was a
tough defeat, considering all he had to do and overcome, but mission
accomplished in getting into the Kentucky Derby.
One handicapping rule many of the experts follow when it
comes to the Derby is never bet on a horse making a major equipment change
going into the race. And the main equipment change they hate to see is blinkers
on. They don’t even like to see blinkers on the race before the Derby, as it
creates too many question marks. The feeling is that by April, a trainer should
know his horse and have his equipment down pat, and putting blinkers on is a
desperate move. Pletcher had tried the blinkers-on experiment once before with
Flower Alley and the colt got fried by one of the hottest paces in Derby
Because Palace Malice seemed so unfocused in the Blue Grass,
Pletcher decided to put blinkers on for the Derby. As it turned out, Palace
Malice, who had come from fifth, eighth, and ninth in his previous three
starts, shot to the lead in the 19-horse cavalry charge under Mike Smith, his
fifth jockey in his last five starts, and quickly was out of control, winging
out there in the slop. Seeing Palace Malice on the lead was a shock to everyone,
including Pletcher, especially in a race with brilliant speed and pace horses
such as Verrazano, Goldencents, and Oxbow.
If being on the lead was a shock, that was nothing compared
to the fractions on the tote board, which Palace Malice lit up with a blazing
:45 1/5 half and 1:09 4/5 three-quarters. That was it for him. He was on a
suicide mission and there was no turning back. Horses who run that fast in the
Derby usually wind up at the back of the back, beaten off badly, As it was, the
horses running second, third, and fourth early, wound up finishing 14th, 17th,
and 18th. Palace Malice was still right there at the quarter pole, but finally
gave up, finishing 12th, but beaten only 1 3/4 lengths for sixth. Another
throw-out race and an experiment gone bad.
Then, of course, we finally saw the real Palace Malice in
the Belmont Stakes and Jim Dandy.
Here is a horse who has run well at six different distances
from five furlongs to 1 1/2 miles at six different distances and about to be
ridden by his sixth different jockey, and few can argue that his record should
be a lot better than it is. Despite a tough nine-race campaign that began in
January he is still at the top of his game, and most likely would have won the
Jockey Club Gold Cup most any other year. As it is he finished ahead of five
tough older horses and four grade I winners, including Flat Out, who had
captured the last two runnings of the Gold Cup and was five-for-six at Belmont
In the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Palace Malice will again take
on Will Take Charge, a pretty tough colt himself who has improved noticeably
since having his blinkers removed and who is getting better despite a long,
grueling campaign that actually began last fall. But more on him another time.
For now, we can look forward to the championship race within the championship
race and hope one of these two colts can prove himself worthy of the title.
As for Palace Malice, whatever one may think
of his ability, there is no denying his toughness and resolve. No matter what
obstacles he’s had to overcome he still gives 100 percent and keeps coming back
for more. And for that he should be admired.