The dreams of hundreds of those involved with the thoroughbred horse industry are set to clash with reality this afternoon as many of the best in the world compete in nine Grade I events in the second session of this year’s Breeders’ Cup.
Only a few will come true.
Dreaming of the future is an important exercise for those involved in the sport of racing horses, as it diminishes the effect of the disappointments of past and present and keeps the participant reaching for what, for most, will prove to be the unreachable star. Such dreams also keep the participant reaching for his wallet, which helps to keep the game afloat.
For the horseman, the dream stands closer to the hope than the expectation, for the latter is usually qualified by what seems realistic. As with every rule, however, there are exceptions and the case of Palace Malice, a sharp contender in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, provides one to consider.
Cot Campbell, president of Dogwood Stable, has been actively involved in the sport 46 years now, has purchased tons of young horseflesh for his partnerships, and has seen a considerable number of those show signs, in the early stages of their development, of great potential. Most fail to reach it, but Palace Malice – following in the footsteps of 1990 Preakness winner Summer Squall – has met, matched and even exceeded it.
“They both tipped their hand early,” Campbell said from his Aiken headquarters to which he is restricted by a bout of vertigo. “You could make a case for them on paper but, more than that, they began acting like good horses right away. Trainers usually temper their enthusiasm, but both Todd Pletcher and his assistant Tristan Barry, who had his hands on Palace Malice first, felt he was something special. Our expectations were always high.”
They were dead-on regarding Palace Malice, now viewed by the knowledgeable as truly a dream horse - a classic winner by virtue of his victory in the Belmont Stakes and now standing but 10 furlongs away from the Eclipse Award as3-year-old male champion of this year and, possibly, Horse of the Year.
“The 3-year-old thing appears to be between us and Will Take Charge,” Campbell said. “He finished ahead of us in the Kentucky Derby when we were both up the track, but we beat him in the Belmont and the Jim Dandy. Then he beat us in the Travers. If we run well in the Classic and finish ahead of him, we should be in good shape.”
The emergence of Palace Malice as a contender for year-end laurels, while very good for Campbell and his partners, is also good for the sport in general, for he is a throwback to the thoroughbred of the not too distant past – a sound horse which thrives on competition.
When he gallops back to be unsaddled this afternoon, he will have raced once in every month of this year except October. In between starts, he has always trained enthusiastically, often besting workmates of high reputation in the Pletcher barn.
In several of his races, the Louisiana Derby and Travers in particular, Palace Malice experienced anything but dream trips. But he has always bounced back, and done it quickly.
“After the Kentucky Derby, it was tacitly understood that he wouldn’t be doing much until mid-summer,” Campbell said. “But in a matter of a very few days, he was on his toes and might have torn the barn down had he not been allowed to train. He just has a remarkable constitution.”
Palace Malice will get some time off after the race this afternoon. After a thorough vet exam in Lexington, he’ll remain in light training in Aiken until mid-January, when the pace will pick up. He will then embark on a 4-year-old campaign that so few of the really good horses of the present day undertake.
Twenty-five years ago, when Alysheba flashed under the wire in the slop that was Churchill Downs that day to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the track announcer saluted him as “America’s Horse.” To dream that the same phrase might be bestowed on Palace Malice next year does not seem unrealistic.