Trainer Todd Pletcher calls Palace Malice an uncomplicated horse.
He stays healthy, he stays in the feed tub and he does what you tell him to do during workouts in the morning.
It’s when Palace Malice is on the track racing that things get complicated.
With a history of bad breaks and weird trips, his record perhaps isn’t what it should be, but he’s putting it all together this year and is the obvious one to beat, as the even-money favorite on the morning line, in today’s 87th Whitney Handicap at Saratoga Race Course.
The Whitney is part of one of New York’s reconfigured blockbuster stakes days, with two other Grade I’s — the A.G. Vanderbilt and Test — and two turf stakes, the De La Rose and Lure. Scheduled post for the Whitney is 5:45 p.m., part of an NBC broadcast that will begin at 5.
Owned by Dogwood Stable, Palace Malice is undefeated this season after a 3-year-old season in which bad starts hurt his chances in the Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic.
The Belmont Stakes winner also jumped some tracks in the Blue Grass, prompting Pletcher to try blinkers in the Kentucky Derby. Palace Malice uncharacteristically blasted out of the Churchill Downs gate and finished 12th, thus ending the blinkers experiment.
The Travers, though, seems to be the most frustrating of the ones that got away. Palace Malice will see three of his opponents from that race, including winner Will Take Charge, in the Whitney.
“As a 3-year-old, we kept feeling like this is a very talented horse that has the ability to win some of these big races,” Pletcher said. “I felt like we let a Travers slip away from us there. He simply didn’t break well, spotted the field and came away last, and the fractions weren’t real fast. I thought he ran a great race to almost overcome that.”
The Whitney has a heavy Travers element to it this year.
Besides Will Take Charge, Moreno, Palace Malice and Romansh from 2013, the 2012 dead-heat winner, Golden Ticket, is in the nine-horse field with no graded-stakes wins in 17 starts since his Travers.
Since Palace Malice ran in the Travers, he’s been second to Ron the Greek in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, sixth in the BC Classic and has rattled off four big wins this season, most recently the Grade I Met Mile.
Will Take Charge, meanwhile, won the Eclipse Award for 3-year-old males and has been traveling the U.S. to flirt with Grade I wins this season, finishing second in the Donn at Gulfstream Park, the Santa Anita Handicap and Stephen Foster at Churchill.
“I really think it’s wonderful that we decide these things on the racetrack, not in the press box, not by guys on television,” trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. “We get them out there, we get them all on the track, we’ve got a wonderful field here. It’s probably going to be the first of many through the fall.”
Lukas said he sees similarities this season to how the son of Unbridled’s Song got good in time for the Travers.
“It was last year when we saw a real change in him when he came up here,” he said. “He got into the feed tub, he trained well. You can say the same thing this year. I think he’s put on weight since we last ran him.
“He’s good. I have no excuses going into the race. I’m looking forward to it and have no reservations at all.”
Moreno, still seeking his first win for trainer Eric Guillot since the Dwyer over a year ago, is the clear early speed, with Salvator Mile winner and 2013 Preakness runner-up Itsmyluckyday perhaps involved early.
“They’re all threats, these are all good horses,” Guillot said. “[Itsmyluckyday] is a one-trick pony. He’s going to get the lead. I’m going to tell you now: if you’re in front of me, you went too fast.”
Departing looks like an X factor, since he’s trained well at Saratoga the last two years, trainer Al Stall Jr. said, but has never raced here.
He sees parallels between his preparation for last year’s West Virginia Derby, run on the same weekend as the Whitney, and Departing’s work up to this year’s Whitney. Departing won the $750,000 West Virginia Derby by 83⁄4 lengths, the biggest margin in the history of that race.
“I’m assuming some speed will run away from there,” Stall said. “Guillot’s already laid the glove down, the gauntlet, I guess. We’ll just follow in there, and who knows what Palace Malice does. Coming off the mile, he might lay close himself. [Jockey] Robby’ll [Albarado] have to figure that out.”