The old Hollywood western cliche of galloping into the sunset would seem a most apt description of Aiken horseman Cot Campbell.
At 86 years old, with more than half his life in the horse business, Campbell is on quite a ride with a thoroughbred that’s proving to be once-in-a-lifetime.
“It is wonderful,” Campbell said. “Most guys my age are sitting around taking it easy and I’m managing the campaign of the No. 1 horse in America at the moment and it is terribly exciting and stimulating. And that’s precisely why I do it.”
Palace Malice, the 2013 Belmont Stakes winner for Aiken’s Dogwood Stable, will put his perfect four-for-four 4-year-old record on the line Saturday in the Whitney Handicap. The $1.5 million race for older horses is the richest purse in the history of Saratoga Race Course and features a quality nine-horse field, including last year’s 3-year-old champion, Will Take Charge.
Palace Malice, however, is the even-odds favorite in the 1 1/8-mile race. He’s also the perceived front-runner – along with Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome – in the race for Horse of the Year. A Las Vegas line has Palace Malice and California Chrome as 5-to-2 co-favorites for the top Eclipse Award. The two are expected to meet head-to-head in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 1.
Campbell believes his horse has the chance to live up to the bloodlines of his two-time Horse of the Year sire, Curlin.
“I think he is the prime candidate at the moment,” Campbell said. “If California Chrome comes back to win a couple of races including the Breeders’ Cup and beats us, he’d be hell to beat. But otherwise, I think right now we’re in the catbird seat.”
All Palace Malice needs to do is keep on winning. That’s no sure thing at Saratoga, where he’s won twice in three starts but lost last year’s Travers Stakes after an awkward break from the post.
But the horse is itching to run for the first time since his charging win down the stretch in the Metropolitan Mile at Belmont Park on the one-year anniversary of his breakout win in the third leg of the Triple Crown series.
“The horse is doing great; everyone is talking about him,” Campbell said. “He’s like a fighter ready to fight. He’s bit two people and one person had to have a tetanus shot. He’s edgy and on his game and ready to run.”
He’ll need to be in a strong field that includes Departing, Itsmyluckyday, Romansh, Last Gunfighter and the speedy Moreno. Palace Malice drew the No. 5 post right in the middle while Will Take Charge got the undesirable rail.
“It’s a huge race,” said Todd Pletcher, Palace Malice’s trainer. “The horse is doing fantastic. He’s off to a great start this year, and we’re just hoping for more of the same from him. He’s been super consistent and impressive.”
Palace Malice has answered the call every time this season in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, New Orleans Handicap, Westchester Stakes and the Met Mile. After the Whitney, Campbell plans to run him again at Saratoga in the Woodward Stakes on Aug. 30, the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Sept. 27 and the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 1 at Santa Anita. All of them are in the horse’s ideal distance range of 1 1/8- to 1 1/4-mile.
“He does well everywhere and seems to adapt wherever he is,” Campbell said. “He’s been to seven racetracks and wherever he is suits him fine.”
That last venue, however, also is well suited for California Chrome, who has three wins in four starts on his home track including the Santa Anita Derby to start the year.
Campbell, as always, likes the challenge. The man who gave up alcohol 57 years ago and never graduated from grammar, high school or college got an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from USC Aiken in May to kick off what’s turned into a banner year.
“It means a lot to me,” he said of the accolades that have come his way. “I’ve had an interesting life. I’ve had a colorful life. I had a tumultuous life in the early days.”
While Campbell and Dogwood have had some quality champions of more than 80 graded stakes through the years, including 1990 Preakness winner Summer Squall, Trippi, Impeachment and Limehouse, this horse is proving to be the most accomplished. His victories over both 1 and 1 ½ miles at Belmont Park make him an attractive candidate for the breeding shed when the time comes. Campbell said he’s been contacted by 10 farms already but he’s holding off retiring Palace Malice to stud.
“I would say we are racing people, but we don’t want to be stupid either,” Campbell said this week. “Many farms have called, and I’ve said we’ll wait until this fall. He could retire or go another year. We’ll have to figure it out as we go along. It’s a tough decision. We certainly don’t want to leave money on the table, but I think the horse has achieved a level of value he will always have.”
Campbell himself has come a long way from the guy who chipped in $300 with a couple of friends in the late ’60s to purchase his first horse. But the thrill of finding a special horse has never grown tiresome.
“Every time I find one I think they’re potentially going to be a nice horse,” he said. “I don’t count on it. But this horse from the very start acted like he could be something special. ... It was pretty clear he could be one of the good ones.”
If Palace Malice proves to be Campbell’s last great horse, so be it. But he’s not going to concede to the sunset yet.
“Somebody once said nobody’s ever committed suicide with an untried yearling in the barn,” Campbell said. “That pretty much describes the mindset of a horseman. We’ve got some nice 2-year-olds that I’m excited about.”