ELMONT — When trainer Todd Pletcher hoisted the Belmont Stakes trophy for the first time in 2007, he had no idea that the colt his filly Rags to Riches nosed out would become the bearer of his second Belmont win. On Saturday afternoon before 47,562 race fans at Belmont Park, Palace Malice, the son of 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin, won the final jewel of this year’s Triple Crown.
Curlin was the colt that was nosed out in that infamous Belmont by the first filly to win the Belmont since 1905 and provide Pletcher with his first Classic training victory. Palace Malice, owned by Dogwood Stables, was much the best late Saturday afternoon. He skipped the Preakness after setting the early blazing pace in the Kentucky Derby where he finished 12th.
It is well chronicled that the decision to put blinkers on him before the Derby led to the mind-blowing early fractions that left Palace Malice with nothing in the tank down the Churchill Downs stretch. Pletcher learned plenty on the first Saturday in May and used it to his advantage in prepping for this year’s Belmont where he saddled a record five starters.
“We probably overthought the Derby a little bit putting the blinkers on him. You live and learn and we took them off today,” said Pletcher, who tallied the third Classic victory of his career. “Of the five horses that ran in the Derby for me, he was the one that bounced out of it the quickest. We felt he had run in the Louisiana Derby, run in the Bluegrass and run in the Kentucky Derby, so [Dogwood owner] Mr. Campbell and I talked about it [running in the Preakness] and decided the right thing to do was not run him back in two weeks.”
Removing the blinkers let him relax and find his rhythm, striking the lead at the quarter pole and winning by 3¼ lengths.
For jockey Mike Smith it was sweet redemption after finishing second in all three Classic races last year on Bodemeister (Derby, Preakness) and Paynter (Belmont).
“In all three races last year they all ran extremely well, but today meant a lot to me. Mr. Campbell, all of Dogwood and Todd, just for having faith and believing in me, and keeping me on when they certainly could have changed very easy after that Derby. It wasn’t the prettiest of things,” said the Hall of Fame jockey.
Smith focused on the positive when discussing the fateful Derby trip as evidence that Palace Malice was a special horse and could be a factor in the Belmont.
“He certainly got a lot out of the Derby. He ran a sneaky good race. It wasn’t like he just folded at the quarter pole and everyone just ran by him. He was actually still in the race at the eighth pole. You take into consideration that he never once took a second breath of air running that fast, he ran incredible,” said Smith.
The Belmont Stakes is such a unique race, run over the longest distance of the Triple Crown trail and on the mile and a half oval at Belmont Park, that having an experienced jockey aboard can make a huge difference. Smith, the winning jockey on Drosselmeyer in the 2010 Belmont, called on his experience and quoted veteran jockey Gary Stevens, who was second on Oxbow on knowing the idiosyncrasies of the track affectionately known as Big Sandy.
“Like Gary Stevens says — It’s like the ocean out there, you can get lost in it if you don’t know it. These are my waters, so I know where the fish are at,” he said.
Stevens was gallant in defeat aboard the Preakness champion Oxbow, hanging on for second after being involved through the backside with Freedom Child.
“We were going entirely way too fast to even be competitive. I didn’t think I’d hit the board going down the backstretch. I started to get in a bit of a fight with him. I said I’m not going to fight ya little buddy. To finish second, I am really surprised. He galloped out after the race like you wouldn’t believe,” said the veteran jockey.
He credited fellow Hall of Famer Smith with a great ride.
“Mike sat a perfect trip on the outside and he had to love what he was seeing ahead of him,” said Stevens.
The Derby champion Orb put in a good run to finish third and complete an exhausting three races in five weeks. Trainer Shug McGaughey was concerned that his horse wouldn’t be able to catch the speed up front.
“He put in a pretty long sustained run in to get where he was. It’s difficult to make a run like that over this race track. This is a difficult track going a mile and a half and you have to be there, and we weren’t there,” said McGaughey.
So another Triple Crown season passes and the drought has hit 35 years since Affirmed won the three Classic races in 1978. With more trainers skipping the Preakness to have fresh horses in the Belmont, the difficulty in winning the Triple Crown has become more and more of a difficult challenge.
With Orb, Oxbow and Palace Malice all coming out of the Triple Crown season soundly, we could be in store for a great Saratoga meeting. The Travers Stakes, could possibly be the race that will decide this year’s 3-year-old champion.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.