For all its (well deserved) reputation for being the first proving ground for 2-year-olds, Saratoga Race Course will be unfamiliar ground for almost all of the 3-year-olds entered in the Jim Dandy on Saturday.
Of the 10, Will Take Charge debuted at Saratoga in 2012, finishing fifth, and only one other has set foot on the main track in a race.
That’s Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice, who returns to the track where he broke his maiden and is now the 5-2 morning-line favorite in the Grade II Travers prep.
While Sunday’s Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park is being billed as a matchup between Palace Malice’s stablemate, Verrazano, and Preakness winner Oxbow, Palace Malice stands out as the horse to beat in the Jim Dandy.
Dogwood Stable purchased Palace Malice for $200,000 at the Keeneland April sale last year, and he won at Saratoga by 31⁄2 lengths to add to the pile of juvenile victories that propelled trainer Todd Pletcher to his third meet title in a row.
Palace Malice floated on the outskirts of what were considered the top 3-year-olds this year, especially after bolting to very fast early fractions and fading to 12th in the Kentucky Derby while wearing blinkers for the only time of his career.
Pletcher never gave up on the colt, though, and actually believed he was sitting on a powder keg in the Belmont, based on works. At 13-1, Palace Malice beat Oxbow by 3 1⁄4 lengths under Mike Smith, with Derby winner Orb another 1 3⁄4 lengths back.
“I think there’s something gratifying when maybe you believe in a horse and other people don’t, then they perform well,” Pletcher said. “We saw things in him that the general public hadn’t seen before that.”
That doesn’t mean that Palace Malice has never managed to surprise Pletcher himself.
He was bred for distance, so it was a bit beyond expectation when he showed good speed in the shorter races typically assigned to 2-year-olds, especially midway through the season.
In particular, Palace Malice won his 61⁄2-furlong maiden race at Saratoga by sticking close to torrid fractions of 21.90 and 44.71 set by Hightail.
“We thought we had a very good colt,” Pletcher said. “Frankly, we were a little surprised that he was running as well as he was at shorter distances, because, being a Curlin out of a Royal Anthem mare [Palace Rumor], you would’ve fully expected him to be a two-turn type horse, so the fact that he was able to show something at shorter distances, we thought, was impressive. Unfortunately, we had a setback before the Hopeful, but he’s come back and developed into the kind of horse we thought he could be.”
While his stablemate, Shanghai Bobby, went on to win the Hopeful and the 2-year-old Eclipse Award, Palace Malice was shut down for the rest of the season with just two races under his belt.
Until taking a break after the Belmont, he had a race in each of the first six months of 2013 — without a win, except for the Belmont.
Still, in a year in which the division is wide open and perhaps will be all the way to the end of the season, Palace Malice is sitting in a pretty good spot.
And he’s back at a track for which he has shown an affinity.
That goes for his owners, too.
Long-time Dogwood managing partner Cot Campbell, who sent horses Pletcher’s way soon after he took out his head trainer’s license, has a love affair with Saratoga that a Jim Dandy/Travers double would only reinforce.
“Mr. Campbell has always been a huge Saratoga fan,” Pletcher said. “We talked briefly about it right after the Belmont. Getting a race here and focusing on the Travers, as well, was something he wanted to do, and it was a pretty easy decision for us with Verrazano [to the Haskell], with the Let’s Go connections all being from that area, it was all really easy decisions, really.
“They’ve supported me from the very beginning. Any time you can have an endorsement like
Mr. Campbell sending you horses, for a young trainer, it’s a big shot in the arm. I think we’re all enjoying it a lot, and to have a classic winner is special. We’ve had a lot of fun with it.”
The bad news for the rest of the Jim Dandy field is that Palace Malice appears to be training up to the race in a similar manner in which he prepared for the Belmont.
He also has shown no ill effects of having participated in what can be a taxing double of the Derby and Belmont.
“Sometimes, you go through the Triple Crown races and a race like the Belmont, a mile and a half, demanding distances, sometimes it’ll knock a horse down for a little bit,” Pletcher said. “In his case, I thought he bounced out of the Derby really well and came out of the Belmont even better. Part of that probably has to do with the fact that he’s a May foal and is kind of naturally maturing and seems to be taking his races really well.
“He’s trained just as well or even better. It seems like he’s thriving and coming up to it really well.”