AIKEN — Morning fog has just lifted over the Aiken Training Track when the town’s biggest celebrity makes his entrance.
Retirees and people stopping on their way to work are clutching cups of coffee and digital cameras, leaning against the white railing for a better view.
About 20 have gathered on this 30-degree Thursday morning to see Dogwood Stable’s Palace Malice, a svelte 16.2-hand bay who this year claimed one of the most prestigious races in the sport.
As the colt breezed through his mile-and-a-quarter workout, Dogwood President W. Cothran Campbell, 85, is bundled in a trench coat and gloves on the shoulder of the track, happily answering questions from onlookers.
“How do you choose a jockey, how tall is he?” they ask.
“Where else other than Aiken can you come right up to the track, see Palace Malice exercise and just chit-chat with the owner?” retiree John Strickland said. “And for such an amazing horse. It’s unreal.”
Palace Malice finished his 3-year-old campaign this month with two wins, three second-place finishes and one third out of 10 starts, earning almost $1.5 million and thrilling his hometown. He returned to Aiken’s Dogwood Stable for a rest before he heads to Florida in January to begin his career as a 4-year-old.
The equine-obsessed town has always rooted for the Aiken-owned-and-trained horses that go on to run races across the country. But by winning the Belmont Stakes and Jim Dandy Stakes this summer and running in the Kentucky Derby, Palace Malice brought a type of energy that hasn’t overwhelmed Aiken since Dogwood’s Summer Squall won the Preakness Stakes in 1990.
“I’d say he’s one of the top two horses we’ve ever had, and we’ve had some good ones,” Campbell said. “It’s been a great stimulus in the community. There’s Palace Malice hats and T-shirts and parties and everything.
“The other day we had 30 people come out just to see him graze. Just to watch him eat grass.”
The Willcox owner Geoffrey Ellis said almost 200 people gathered at his hotel’s bar to watch Palace Malice race in the Belmont and Jim Dandy on TV this summer. Before the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 2, Ellis painted the silks on a jockey statue in the hotel’s garden with green and yellow to match Aiken’s favorite racehorse.
“If you wanted to get anything done on race days, it was impossible,” Ellis said. “Nobody was picking up the phone. Even retail stores were closed for a while because everyone was in the back watching the race.”
Campbell arranged Palace Malice’s tri-weekly exercise and daily grazing at specific times so the public can make plans to watch. He said the horse’s confident demeanor, his handsome looks and elegance on the track just attract people.
“If he were a human being, I’d say he’d be Derek Jeter,” Campbell said, a nod to the New York Yankees shortstop. “He’s steady, dependable, capable.”
Campbell, who left the advertising business for horses in the 1970s, established Dogwood Stable on the concept of racing partnerships, an idea unheard of in the industry at the time that made owning racehorses more affordable.
The stable has raised 77 stakes winners, gone to the Kentucky Derby seven times and has three Eclipse Awards, the industry’s top honor.
Campbell bought Palace Malice in 2012 as a 2-year-old from an auction in Lexington, Ky. Bred from the nation’s top money earner, Curlin, the horse had good pedigree and a stride that caught Campbell’s eye at the auction demonstration.
The horse ended his successful year with the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 2, but his victories were tinted with a few spurts of bad luck.
Palace Malice’s jockey, John Velazquez, was badly injured earlier in the day during the Breeders Cup’ in an accident where his horse fractured her leg and was euthanized on the track. The last-minute rider switch for Palace
Malice contributed to a sixth-place finish.
Earlier in the summer in the Kentucky Derby, Palace Malice had a “disastrous experiment” with blinkers, equipment that limits a horse’s vision and are meant to reduce distractions. They ended up causing the horse to run too hard in the beginning and lose steam in the end for a 12th-place finish.
Palace Malice caused a huge upset when he won the Belmont in June, beating Preakness Stakes winner Oxbow by 3¼ lengths. In July, he won the $600,000 Jim Dandy in New York, causing cheers in living rooms and bars in Aiken.
“We all jumped up, we were all screaming,” said retired Aiken teacher Sandra Herrick. “We’re all just so proud and haven’t seen anything like him in a while.”
Palace Malice’s successful year makes him a contender for racing’s highest honors of American Horse of the Year and the Eclipse Award. This month he won the 2013 Aiken Trained Horse of the Year award from the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum.
Campbell said the horse’s best year might be ahead. His first start will be the New Orleans Handicap on March 29, continuing under the training of the country’s leading thoroughbred trainer, Todd Pletcher.
“He’s bred to be a horse that matures later, a horse that will keep getting better,” he said. “So if he gets better, it will be a hell of a thing.”
He knows Aiken will be watching either way.