It’s funny how $1.5 million can make a horse like Palace Malice look a little less intimidating.
The clear leader of the older handicap division is rightfully even money on the morning line for Saturday’s 87th running of the Grade I Whitney at Saratoga Race Course, but that didn’t seem to scare anyone away.
The field for the Whitney drew nine horses, including four of the top five from last year’s Travers Stakes. Among those is the 3-year-old Eclipse Award winner, Will Take Charge, who lost to Palace Malice in the Jim Dandy, then beat Moreno by a nose in the Travers as Palace Malice was fourth.
They’re all chasing 2013 Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice this year after he won his first four, most recently the Grade I Met Mile.
“When you make statements that you think a horse is good, and it took him a little while to prove it, there’s some added satisfaction for that,” said Todd Pletcher, who trains Palace Malice for Dogwood Stable.
“It’s great to see that many horses come back in the handicap division after running in the Travers and all year long,” said Moreno’s trainer, Eric Guillot.
“There’s some others that have a shot at it,” said Al Stall Jr., who trains Departing. “Palace Malice is having a tremendous year. He’s going to be one that everyone is going to have to keep their eye on, including us.”
Palace Malice will break from post No. 5, and Will Take Charge drew the rail and is the 4-1 second choice.
The Whitney is a Breeders’ Cup “Win-and-You’re-In” qualifying race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic and will be televised live on NBC.
The purse was doubled from $750,000 and is the highest in the history of Saratoga.
“We felt like we knew who would be here about six weeks ago, and they all seem to have shown up in good order,” Stall said. “We were coming anyway. The Whitney’s the Whitney, and that’s [purse] just a little gravy. We’re excited to be here no matter what, and a $1.5 million pot makes it all the better.”
If not for some bad breaks and bad trips, Palace Malice may have been able to wrestle the Eclipse Award from Will Take Charge.
He appears to be over his gate trouble, Pletcher said, which makes the son of Curlin a formidable opponent.
He opened the season with a win in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, came right back three weeks later to win the New Orleans Handicap and blew away the field in the Grade III Westchester at Belmont Park, the prep for the Met Mile.
“The biggest difference this year is he hasn’t made those types of mistakes,” Pletcher said. “We were worried about the Met Mile, drawing the one hole and carrying top weight, and he’s just gotten more professional.”
D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of Will Take Charge, said he’s looking forward to the opportunity to take on Palace Malice.
“He’s going to have to prove he’s the best,” Lukas said. “I mean, we can talk about it, but you’ve got to go out there and do it. Don’t tell me; show me.”
Will Take Charge has had a typically busy campaign this year.
Since clinching the championship by winning the Clark Handicap after a second by a nose to Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he has finished second in three Grade I’s and won the Oaklawn Handicap.
Lukas was less than thrilled about drawing the rail.
“I hate to have an upset stomach this early in the morning. Not good,” he said. “I never really have much luck on the rail in any big race, not really in one of this magnitude.”
With Gary Stevens out of commission to get a knee operation, Luis Saez will get the mount back on Will Take Charge.
He rode the colt seven straight times through the Oaklawn Handicap before Lukas switched to Stevens for the Alysheba and Stephen Foster.
A week after the Travers, Saez was in the middle of controversy when Guillot questioned whether he had used an illegal electric buzzer on Will Take Charge during the race.
Saez was exonerated after an investigation of the state Gaming and Racing Commission.
“I think he is probably going to be a little more hungry getting back on him,” Lukas said. “I think he wanted to stay on him, and the fact that he’s back on him, he feels pretty comfortable.”
The colorful Cajun Guillot already has a voodoo doll hanging from a tree next to his barn, with a rooster claw and a picture of Moreno underneath.