The Triple Crown season is long over, but the three best 3-year-old thoroughbreds are facing a decisive showdown in the “Mid-summer Derby” at Saratoga in New York.
Palace Malice is the 5-2 second choice in Saturday’s Travers Stakes (5:46 p.m., NBC-Ch. 26). A winner of the Jim Dandy in July on the same track, the Dogwood Stable entry drew a desirable outside starting post while rivals Orb and Verrazano will start inside at 2 and 3.
The favored Verrazano, also trained by Todd Pletcher, and rested Kentucky Derby champion Orb are getting most of the attention, but many experts feel Cot Campbell’s Belmont Stakes winner might be the one most likely to succeed.
“This horse has really developed and he’s grown since the Belmont, filled out and become stronger,” said Hank Goldberg, ESPN’s horse racing analyst. “His performance in the Jim Dandy was really eye-opening. He likes this race track and it’s obvious that he does. He’s doing so well he could wind up being named the 3-year-old horse of the year off what happened in the Jim Dandy, what he did in the Belmont and what he’s gonna do on Saturday.”
It’s been 44 years since a horse pulled off that triple combination, going back to Arts and Letters in 1969. After sweeping the Belmont, Jim Dandy and Travers, Arts and Letters won twice more before the end of the season to be named the champion 3-year-old colt and Horse of the Year.
Campbell believes the Travers will be a referendum on the 3-year-olds and a victory could vault Palace Malice into contention with 6-year-old turf champion Wise Dan – the reigning Eclipse Award winner – for American horse of the year. Verrazano and Palace Malice were the highest ranked 3-year-olds – sixth and seventh, respectively – in the latest National Thoroughbred Racing Association poll.
Dogwood hopes to run Palace Malice twice more in 2013 – possibly against older horses in late September and in the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 2 at Santa Anita. Since 1993, five Belmont Stakes winners have won the Travers, but only three of those eventually won the 3-year-old divisional title.
“If he were to be lucky enough to win the (Travers) it would certainly put him in the forefront of all the 3-year-olds and the only one who could compete with him for horse of the year would be the turf horse, Wise Dan,” said Campbell, who previously sent two other Dogwood entries into the Travers, with Wallenda (1993) and Impeachment (2000) both finishing out of the money. “But we’ve got to win the race first and that’s going to be tough.”
It’s the first meeting of the division’s top horses since they all started at Churchill Downs in May. The only thing missing from the nine-horse Travers field is Oxbow, the Preakness winner who sustained an injury in the Haskell Invitational won in a romp by Verrazano.
With the showdown set, Campbell is enjoying the buzz generated by his horse. While folks in Aiken have been organizing Travers parties and gathering up Palace Malice T-shirts, caps and badges, Cot and Anne Campbell have been summering in Saratoga.
“It’s sure been a good one and that horse makes it that way,” Campbell said of the year. “It’s certainly the finest and most exciting season since the days of Summer Squall. It’s been wonderful. The horse just seems to get better as he gets older. Every month he’s a little better than the month before.”
While all horses from the same year are lumped in the same age bracket, Palace Malice was a May 2 foal and on the younger side of his 3-year-old brethren.
“I really think when he ran in the spring and the Derby he was a little green,” Campbell said.
Not any more as he keeps dusting the competition with workman-like precision.
“Couldn’t be better,” Campbell said of the horse’s pre-race workouts that resemble his run-up to the Belmont. “What he’s been asked to do he’s just done it laughingly. It’s come so easily for him. This horse is a very earnest, conscientious, likeable animal with a sweet disposition who loves to train.”
The Travers covers the same 1¼ miles as the Kentucky Derby, a distance that won’t trouble Palace Malice after winning the 1½-mile Belmont. Jockey Mike Smith will be careful not to let him burn out with a blazing start like he did with blinkers on at Churchill Downs.
Orb is obviously comfortable at that distance and has been declared “back” and “better than ever” after resting at Fair Hill in Maryland since his disappointing finishes in the final two legs of the Triple Crown left him exhausted. Orb’s 47.68-second half-mile drill Monday at the Saratoga training track was the fastest pre-race workout.
Verrazano hasn’t had the same success at long distances, with his 14th-place finish at the Derby the only time he hasn’t won in seven starts this season. But oddsmakers still set him as the horse to beat at 2-1.
With Orb and Verrazano starting inside expected pace-setter Moreno, Palace Malice with Smith aboard again is sitting pretty on the outside where he attacked from at the Belmont.
“The tricky thing is the two favorites, Verrazano and Palace Malice, have exactly the same running style,” Campbell said.
“They’re coming from the same barn, same trainer with the same style and like to lay close to the pace and pounce. Both have hall-of-fame jockeys. The instructions to each rider will be, ‘You figure it out.’”
Whoever figures it out best will stand out above the rest.