All eyes and most of the money will be on favorites Orb and Oxbow in the Belmont Stakes, but things are looking up for Aiken entry Palace Malice.
After a disappointing flame-out in the Kentucky Derby, the rested colt from Dogwood Stable is drawing rave reviews in preparation for the most grueling test of champions on the Triple Crown circuit.
“He’s touting himself, no doubt about that,” said Cot Campbell, the 86-year-old Dogwood owner from Aiken. “He’s begun to be somewhat of a buzz. I’m not saying he’ll be favorite, he’ll be 15-to-1. But people are kind of renewing their respect for him.”
Palace Malice certainly has the breeding to feature in the mile-and-a-half race. His sire is Curlin, the Preakness winner and eventual horse of the year who lost a furious stretch duel with filly Rags to Riches in the 2007 Belmont Stakes.
“He has a lot of stamina in his pedigree,” Campbell said. “From that standpoint, he’s got the paper that would let him go a mile-and-a-half.”
The mile-and-a-quarter at the Kentucky Derby, however, didn’t go so well for Palace Malice. Wearing blinkers for the first time after being distracted down the stretch in the Blue Grass Stakes, the bay bolted to the front and set a blistering pace through the first three turns. Caught by the field entering the final turn, he faded to 12th as Orb rallied for the victory.
“The Derby was a disaster to anybody that understood pace because he went three-quarters of a mile faster than horses win sprint races,” Campbell said. “It was suicidal. But the blinkers have come off. We know what went wrong in the Derby and hopefully it won’t go wrong at the Belmont.”
Jockey Mike Smith was eager to mount Palace Malice again after the showing at Churchill Downs. He called Campbell after the race and apologized, explaining that he either had to get in a fight with the horse to hold him back or let him go and hope he settled down. “There couldn’t be a headier, more experienced cool customer than Mike Smith and I hope he proves it Saturday afternoon,” Campbell said.
The Belmont Park entry is rare for the lime-and-lemon colors of Dogwood Stables. Campbell and his wife, Anne, attend the Belmont every year, taking in the shows and nightlife of New York before going to the track typically as spectators. But only once before has Campbell had a horse in the race.
In 2000, Impeachment was considered a strong contender on the long track, having finished third in Tampa, Arkansas, Kentucky and the Preakness. After closing hard to finish third by a head behind Red Bullet and Fusiachi Pegasus at Pimlico, handicappers liked his chances with the extra distance.
“He had his worst race,” Campbell said, as Impeachment broke last from the gate and could only rally as close as fifth at the finish.
Having sat out the Preakness, Palace Malice seems fresh and ready to present a huge challenge to the favorites. One of five entries from trainer Todd Pletcher, the Dogwood horse has been even more impressive than Revolutionary, who finished third in the Kentucky Derby before also sitting out the Preakness.
“Ever since the Derby and the day after, he’s trained exceedingly well and been very impressive,” Campbell said. “His trainers have referred several times to a ‘monstrous’ or ‘awesome’ workout. He has been impressive but he’s always been impressive. He did go faster than all the other Pletcher horses and Orb, but he did it easily. He gallops out. When the work is over he just keeps going and it’s hard to pull him up. He’s doing well within himself. Not like he’s going hell for leather. Good horses work fast.”
Monday morning’s workout left Pletcher gushing.
“To me, it was a monstrous gallop out – as good as you’ll ever see a horse gallop out.” Pletcher said. “He’s good enough to pull one of these off.”
Orb and Oxbow splitting the first two legs of the Triple Crown series makes for a more crowded field of contenders in the Belmont. The 14 horses are perhaps double what it might have been if Orb had won the Preakness and was vying for a sweep with a reputation as invincible.
“It’s going to a large field, which I don’t like,” Campbell said. “But going a mile-and-a-half on that gigantic race track, there’s probably time to get yourself sorted out if you stay out of trouble.”
Palace Malice drew the No. 12 post, and no horse outside No. 11 has ever won the Belmont. But that’s a misleading statistic since the field often doesn’t go that high.
Campbell’s hopes are for Smith to keep Palace Malice a few lengths off the pace early and position himself for a late charge.
“If there’s no pace I can see us taking the lead, but I’d be leery of that,” Campbell said considering the experience at Churchill Downs.
While the Belmont is what Campbell calls “a peculiar race” and difficult to predict, having a rare entry with a chance to wear a blanket of carnations Saturday afternoon is a thrill for the seasoned owner. It would make a nice accomplishment to pair with Dogwood’s 1990 Preakness victory from Summer Squall.
“It’s quite exciting to run this colt in there and exciting to have him coming up like he is,” Campbell said.