Palace Malice Should be Admired

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 detractors.

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 beaten.

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 history.

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 Park.

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.

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