Heroes are not always determined by statistics or even accomplishments. Heroism often comes from within, through an emotional link, and bestowed to those who hold a special meaning in people’s lives, whether on a national scale, like Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, and Secretariat or on a local level as in the case of Palace Malice.
Aiken, S.C. has a population of around 30,000 and takes great pride in winning the National Civic League’s All-America City Award in 1997. Located 20 miles northeast of Augusta, Ga., it is embedded in the historic horse country of South Carolina, about 80 miles from Camden. This is the heart of steeplechase country and the longtime home of numerous Thoroughbred champions who have wintered or received their early training at Aiken or Camden.
For years, the horse-loving Aikenites have embraced potential stars owned by Aiken resident Cot Campbell and his Dogwood Stable, and they reveled in the Preakness victory of Dogwood’s Summer Squall in 1990. But a new generation has been waiting 23 years to pour their hearts out again to that special Thoroughbred who could fill the role of hero.
That hero came along this year. His name is Palace Malice, and although he is not going to be remembered as one of the all-time greats and came up short of clinching the 3-year-old championship with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, his toughness, consistency, raw ability, and hard-luck campaign endeared him to the city of Aiken like few before him. He was their hero and not even another tough-luck defeat in the Classic was going to change that.
They realize all the colt went through this year, with bad starts, a botched-up schedule, and self-destructing when sent on a suicide mission in the Kentucky Derby. To Aikenites, he will always be the shaft of light that shone down on their town on Belmont Stakes day, putting Aiken back on the map and evoking feelings of pride.
That is why dozens of Aikenites have come out to watch Palace Malice train and even just graze during his current winter stay.
Geoff Ellis, owner of the Willcox Inn in Aiken, has been busy this year throwing Belmont Stakes and Travers Stakes parties.
“Everyone in town is a huge fan of Cot’s,” Ellis said. “He’s certainly got an exciting horse. We’ve hosted a few parties to watch him run. We send out teasers and we get a couple of hundred people that show up with green and yellow balloons and flags and banners. There must have been a hundred people waiting outside Cot’s house with balloons and sign when he won the Belmont. It’s almost like it’s a ticker tape parade, like when a team comes back home after winning the Super Bowl.
“The Belmont party was huge. What a great race he ran. We have a small three-story boutique hotel that’s 115 years old and the whole place was shaking when he crossed the finish line. It felt like an earthquake was happening. When we put out our invitations for the Breeders’ Cup the responses came pouring in. I ran ribbons across the columns in the front of the hotel. We went all out. It’s such a big deal here. Cot is a class act. He’s one of my favorite people. He’s just dynamite and it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. He and (wife) Anne are the cream of the crop. They’re celebrities around here for sure.”
As is Palace Malice.
Perhaps no one is as passionate and enthusiastic as Ben Baugh, a beat reporter for the Aiken Standard. He and Palace Malice have formed an almost symbiotic relationship through Baugh’s keyboard, which has been pounding out Palace Malice stories all year.
“It’s been so great for the city,” Baugh said. “He was on the national stage and people were dancing in the streets of Aiken. The enthusiasm is palpable. For me, this is the biggest story of my career as a newspaper reporter and it always will be no matter what happens. I’ll never have a better moment as a reporter.
“People just love this horse and they’re well aware he is special. From time to time you’ll see people in the streets wearing Palace Malice buttons and T-shirts. It’s a sense of pride, because they feel this is the city of Aiken’s horse and they’ve really embraced him. He’s captured the imagination of the entire city. After all he’s been through this year the people have grasped the concept that he is our horse. We claimed a piece of him. He’s an Aikenite as much as any of us.”
Like Ellis, Baugh is thrilled for Campbell, because of all he’s done for the industry as father of the syndicated partnerships and the high-class profile he has maintained for so many years through Dogwood and his many other endeavors.
“For this to happen to Mr. Campbell at age 85 and being in the business for 44 years, and all he’s done for the sport and the city of Aiken, what more could you want? To have a horse like this represent the city of Aiken and perform at the level he has all year is something I’m so thrilled to see and to be a part of. I don’t think it could get any better than this. You can’t trade the memories I’ve gotten just from this year.
“It’s been the greatest experience for me as a reporter to have followed this horse even before he broke his maiden right through the Derby trail. In the Derby everyone in the newsroom was yelling and screaming. Then to see him win the Belmont the way he did was a surreal experience. This is just a sleepy town with so much history, with Kelso and so many other horses who have come through here. But to have a horse like this be part of our lives here in 2013 is the absolute best thing in the world.”
Palace Malice’s eventful campaign in 2013 and the incredible story of his dam Palace Rumor have been well chronicled in this column all year. That campaign did not end as the horse’s fans had hoped, with Palace Malice once again losing all chance at the start, as he did in the Travers. But that did not dampen the enthusiasm of his many supporters, especially all the loyal fans in Aiken. To them, Palace Malice still is, and always will be, a hero.