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Take talent over voodoo

Saturday, August 2, 2014
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— The MacGuffin for “Voodoo II: Electric Juju Boogaloo” is hanging from a tree on the Oklahoma side of Union Avenue.

Same producer, same director, same cast of characters, same set. Hell, same caterer for the crew, with an updated menu.

Same plot? Spoiler alert: No.

Trainer Eric Guillot — the raucous, rambling, rollicking reprobate — is up to his old tricks heading into today’s Whitney Handicap at Saratoga Race Course, which is a sequel to the 2013 Travers.

He has a framed picture of doyen Marylou Whitney in a big pink hat, with “I Love Moreno” printed at the bottom, nailed to a tree next to barn 72.

The prop in question is a piece of string hanging from a branch that, from top to bottom, holds a voodoo doll, eight toy plastic horses, and a rooster claw.

It’s similar to the voodoo assemblage before last year’s Travers, when Guillot bought a “Twilight” action figure that sort of looked like trainer Todd Pletcher to put the bad juju on his horses, Palace Malice and Verrazano.

Guillot’s horse, Moreno, benefitted from a lousy break from the gate by Palace Malice in the Travers, but couldn’t hold off Will Take Charge and lost by an excruciating head bob at the wire.

At the Whitney draw on Wednesday, Pletcher was on the podium and said “Palace Malice stumbled at the break in the Travers,” and Guillot hollered from the gallery, “Why?” Then cackled to himself.

Four of the top five from that Travers are back for the Whitney, and because one of them is Moreno, that meant another pre-race party with zydeco music, hearty Cajun chow and cold sodas and beers at Guillot’s barn late Friday morning.

“We’re gonna stimulate your tastebuds and paralyze your palate. You’re gonna have a three-ring circus in your mouth,” was his invitation to the press at Wednesday’s draw.

Consider my tastebuds stimulated (though surprisingly short of paralysis) by a massive pot of Whitney jambalaya, replacing last year’s tremendous Travers gumbo. Consider me unconvinced, too, that all the voodoo and Cajun faith on the bayou is going to beat Palace Malice this time.

He finished fourth when I picked him to win the Travers last year, but Palace Malice was the best horse in the race, overcoming the bad break and a bad trip to get within three-quarters of a length of the dueling Will Take Charge and Moreno.

Not today.

The eight plastic toys represent Moreno’s Whitney rivals, and the rooster claw is there to catch any bad vibes that might be conducted down the string and into Moreno’s nearby stall. I think.

Nevertheless, Palace Malice is too good right now, is exhibiting a professionalism that he didn’t have as a 3-year-old and loves Saratoga.

He’s broke his maiden at Saratoga by 3 1⁄2 lengths in 2012, beat Will Take Charge and Moreno in the Jim Dandy and is one bad trip away from being undefeated at Saratoga.

So he’s my pick, and here’s how it’s going to happen:

The two I’m most worried about are Moreno and Will Take Charge, the one because he could steal the Whitney on the front end, and the other because he could get an advantageous set-up if somebody goes after Moreno.

I like Moreno’s grit, and he’s been working lights-out, but he shows a tendency to go too fast in the early part of nine-furlong races.

Will Take Charge also shows a robust worktab in July, and has never finished worse than second in six nine-furlong races, but I’m willing to wager that he won’t be able to catch Palace Malice unless Palace Malice and Moreno get into a crazy speed duel.

Three of Palace Malice’s four starts this year have come at a mile; he’s won his last two starts at a mile and an eighth, including the New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds this year, by 4 3⁄4 lengths over Normandy Invasion.

I’ve been a little intrigued by Departing, since trainer Al Stall Jr. keeps gushing about how well he’s worked on the main track the last two years. But he’s never actually raced at Saratoga, and he’s going to have to beat me before I believe he’s not quite in the upper tier with these others.

The trifecta is Palace Malice, Moreno, Will Take Charge.

So put down that gumbo and jambalaya, and grab some popcorn.

 
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