ELMONT, N.Y. – Seventeen years ago, Cot Campbell had faith. Faith that the unknown trainer he was taking a chance on by sending horses to would eventually help deliver his Dogwood Stable partnership to Thoroughbred racing’s greatest heights.
For the better part of the last six months, both Campbell and his now five-time Eclipse Award winning conditioner Todd Pletcher were keeping hope alive regarding an upstart son of Curlin, repeatedly giving the chestnut colt chances to deliver the goose bumps in a race that he inspired in the mornings.
The reward that results at the end of a long, arduous journey often has an extra delicious tinge of sweetness to it. And in the lengthiest test of the Triple Crown series, all of that unwavering belief delivered in a way that trumped prior expectations.
After months of frustrating his connections with his unfulfilled promise, all was forgiven regarding Dogwood Stable’s Palace Malice in the wake of his upset 3 1/4-length triumph over Preakness Stakes winner Oxbow and Kentucky Derby hero Orb in the 145th running of the Belmont Stakes before a crowd of 47,562 Saturday.
Of the five horses Pletcher saddled in the final leg of the Triple Crown, Palace Malice was the one who consistently had his now two-time Belmont Stakes winning trainer on a mental roller coaster.
In his morning works, Palace Malice had Pletcher comparing him to some of the champions who had passed through his care. Too often on raceday, however, the colt would resemble an also-ran with just one win from seven prior starts coming into Saturday.
As he ranged up under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith to take over the lead from Oxbow entering the stretch of the 1 1/2-miles Belmont, Pletcher’s normally unflappable nature jumped into his throat at the realization of what was about to transpire.
“I told Mike that at about the 16th pole, I jumped on pretty hard,” joked Pletcher, who ironically won his first Belmont in 2007 when the champion filly Rags to Riches defeated Palace Malice’s sire Curlin. “Two works back, I told Mr. Campbell afterwards it was as good a work as I’ve ever seen a horse put forth in the morning. He’d become a little bit frustrating because we really felt there was a big one in him.
“It’s an emotional win for me because of the Dogwood connection,” Pletcher added. “They supported me from the very beginning and to win a big race for them is gratifying.”
Viewed as the father of Thoroughbred racing partnerships that are now the norm, Campbell celebrated his first classic win with Summer Squall taking the Preakness in 1990. Though Campbell has scaled back his operation in recent years, Dogwood maintains about 30-35 horses in the ongoing quest to get its signature green and yellow silks back to top-level glory.
Palace Malice has those colors winging away out front in the Kentucky Derby for nearly a mile when, keyed up from wearing blinkers for the first time, he ran off to suicidal early fractions before fading to 12th.
Said blinkers were a thing of the past for the Belmont. And with fresh legs under him after skipping the Preakness Stakes, Palace Malice was the picture of relaxation as he settled on an outside path just behind Frac Daddy, Freedom Child and Oxbow up front as the opening half of the Belmont went in a wicked :46.66.
“He completely ran through the bridle (in the Derby),” said Smith, who won his second Belmont in the last four runnings. “Today, he was just so relaxed. It seemed like every ten strides he would just fill up with air and start in a beautiful rhythm.
“When I ranged up to (jockey) Gary (Stevens on Oxbow), he looked over to me and says ‘Go on little brother, you’re moving better than me’.”
As Palace Malice began drawing off from his 13 rivals, Orb was vainly making a sustained run to the outside after being next to last after the first half mile.
The sweeping move that took everyone’s breath away on Derby day was more of a slow grind Saturday with the 2-to-1 favorite only able to muster third, 1 3/4-lengths behind a dead game Oxbow who held for second.
“(Jockey) Joel (Rosario) said he when started picking up horses, he thought they’d come back to them more than they did,” said Shug McGaughey, trainer of Orb. “The two in front didn’t. It’s difficult to make a run like that over this racetrack. You’ve got to be there and we weren’t there.”
Added Stevens on Oxbow, “I’m so proud of this colt, I thought I was dead midway down the backside. They were suicidal fractions and..going into the far turn, I didn’t think he would hit the board. He’s one of the bravest Thoroughbreds I’ve sat on.”
Final time for the 12 furlong test was 2:30.70 over a track that was rated fast despite the deluge of rain that hit Friday.
Dismissed by the betting public at 13-to-1 odds for his prior shortcomings, Palace Malice now has his connections wondering what he can do now that he has woken up instead of repeatedly pondering when he will show up.
“I was just hoping he would have an absence of bad luck,” Campbell said. “We had trouble in the Louisiana Derby, we didn’t go too good in the Kentucky Derby. God knows though we went good today.”