Saratoga: Pletcher trainees Palace Malice, Verrazano a tough Travers duo
SARATOGA SPRINGS The bay colt with the green-and-yellow blanket walked around the ring, stopping occasionally for a sip of water.
The bay colt with the darker coat and the white blanket walked around the ring, also, another planet in the same orbit.
If this had been a race, it would have been impossible to tell who led and who trailed.
Saturday is when worlds collide.
It’s not unusual for trainer Todd Pletcher to have more than one horse in a big race, but this time he not only will saddle two horses, but they’re the top two favorites to win.
Palace Malice and Verrazano will represent the Pletcher stable in the $1 million Travers at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday, giving him two very good shots at winning it for the third time.
Racing and its scattered landscape of stakes races gives trainers and owners opportunities to keep their top horses separated, but in this case, there was no good reason to keep either out of the Travers.
So here they come.
“You always try to do what’s best for each individual horse and each individual owner, and I think the Travers is the right race for both horses,” Pletcher said. “It’s as simple as that. I’m as interested to see it as everyone else. They’re two horses that are doing unbelievably well and coming off really, really good races. It’s going to be interesting. I think it’s going to be a fun race to watch. It’s shaping up to be a great Travers.”
Palace Malice won the Belmont Stakes and Jim Dandy, but actually is the 5-2 second choice on the morning line behind Verrazano, who bombed in the Kentucky Derby, but is coming off a spectacular win in the Haskell Invitational. He’s 2-1.
Verrazano is co-owned by Let’s Go Stable and the Coolmore connections of Michael Tabor, Mrs. John Magnier and Derrick Smith and has a nice white Haskell blanket with his named embroidered on it for his morning cool-down.
Palace Malice is owned by Dogwood Stable and is providing 85-year-old president and founder Cot Campbell the ride of his life as he winds down his involvement in the partnership stable he began in 1969.
Hall of Famer Mike Smith will wear Dogwood’s familiar green silks with the yellow polka dots, and John Velazquez will be on Verrazano, whose only career loss in seven starts was the Derby.
Besides coming from the same samesame stable, Palace Malice and Verrazano have remarkably similar running styles, which has raised the question of whether they’re in danger of cancelling each other out in the Travers.
Both like to stalk close to the early speed, then put away the front-runner with plenty in reserve to hold off the late-comers.
That’s how Palace Malice won his last two, and how Verrazano mowed down Preakness winner Oxbow in the Haskell.
“Mike and Johnny are going to have to make some decisions on where they want to be,” Pletcher said. “Hopefully, they don’t get in each other’s way, but each of them has to run their own race to try and win. We’ll talk about strategies with each individual horse, but those guys are going to have to sort it out.”
Palace Malice and Verrazano were on the main track together for their final breeze on Sunday, Verrazano working in company with Capo Bastone, one of three horses Pletcher has entered in the King’s Bishop on the Travers card.
“He’s such an earnest, willing horse,” Campbell said after Palace Malice’s work. “He wants to do exactly what you want him to do, and he did it easy, thank goodness. I’d love to win it, but if we don’t, we’ve still got a couple of good ones under our belt.
If Palace Malice wins the Travers, he’d be the first to sweep the Belmont, Jim Dandy and Travers since Arts and Letters did it in 1969.
Pletcher said that perhaps no one loves Saratoga more than Campbell, and a Travers win would be an intriguing development during a year in which Dogwood won the Belmont, but also saw its historic barn in Aiken, S.C., burn down on the opening Saturday of the Saratoga meet. All 24 horses inside were saved.
“It has been a great, great year,” Campbell said. “And it’s in the waning time of my career, so that makes it more poignant and wonderful. Winning the Belmont was fabulous. We’d won the Preakness [with Summer Squall in 1990], tried to win the Derby and came close, but winning the Belmont was wonderful. We’re still feeling the repercussions of that, and our hometown has been going absolutely crazy, Aiken, South Carolina.”
As far as racing goes, Palace Malice and Verrazano have been operating in parallel universes.
Palace Malice broke his maiden at Saratoga last year, Verrazano was unraced as a 2-year-old, although he was ready to go in December and then had to wait until January for his debut because a race wouldn’t fill.
He ran in Florida during the winter and has actually only run in New York once, winning the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.
Where the two colts converge is how they’ve trained for the Travers off their last races.
“With both horses, it’s rare that you go through these Triple Crown prep series, run in the Derby — and in Palace Malice’s case, the Belmont — and seem to get bigger and stronger and better as you’re doing it,” Pletcher said. “I think the key to the really good ones is they’re able to withstand those types of campaigns and flourish while doing it.
“Verrazano’s constitution, he’s very much the same kind of horse. They’re both horses that carry their weight well and take their races well. They’re kind horses to train. They don’t overdo it on a daily basis. When you have them breeze, they’re right there doing exactly what you want them to do.”
Palace Malice and Verrazano will have more than each other to contend with on Saturday, of course.
This isn’t a match race, after all.
But it could turn into a race within a race between the two hottest colts in the country.
“We’re concerned that we’re trying to match lifetime-best performances in four weeks,” Pletcher said. “It’s always a balancing act. We just hope they can come over and run their races, and everything we’ve seen since the Jim Dandy and Haskell indicates to us they’re still in peak form.”