SARATOGA SPRINGS The jarring clatter of footsteps behind him has now settled into the muffled shuffling of compliant followers.
Two races after what jockey Mike Smith described as an overanxious colt who was rattled and got out of his element on the lead in the Kentucky Derby, Palace Malice gradually but confidently got by frontrunner Moreno to win the Grade II Jim Dandy by a length over Will Take Charge before 25,375 at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday.
The final time of 1:47.37 was flattered by the fact that the Saratoga main track hasn’t been playing all that fast, but otherwise, there was nothing spectacular about Palace Malice’s victory.
Instead, what added some luster to it was the way the 6-5 betting favorite methodically went about his business to reaffirm that Dogwood Stable’s Belmont Stakes winner is for real.
He shows just three career victories — two of which have been at Saratoga — but the late-developing May foal is doing his best work just in time to be the one to beat in the Aug. 24 Travers.
“He was better than last time,” Smith said. “Those are kind of big words to say, after winning the Belmont, but he truly was, and there’s room to grow. The last sixteenth of a mile, he was well within himself. He was searching for more ground if I needed it. He’ll get every bit of a mile and a quarter.”
“His last race was a breakthrough performance, but he followed it up with an even better one,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “I felt like this was maybe his best performance yet. It was certainly extremely professional.
“Mike said he felt like he had a little something left in the tank coming to the wire, and he was kind of cocking his ears back and forth. Even though the win margin wasn’t huge, it looked like he did it very well.”
Palace Malice appears to have put his Kentucky Derby disaster, in which he wore blinkers for the first time, ran “scared” (as Smith put it) and finished 12th, behind him.
In the Belmont, he put away the Preakness winner, Oxbow, who is running in the Haskell at Monmouth Park today, and the Derby winner, Orb.
Saturday’s Jim Dandy was more of the same, and then some.
Moreno, ridden by Jose Ortiz, skyrocketed into the Jim Dandy picture by finally breaking his maiden in his 10th attempt last month, then winning the Dwyer by seven lengths, using a front-running approach that has served him well since blinkers were added for that maiden win.
Breaking one stall outside of Moreno in post No. 5 in a field shortened to nine colts by the scratch of Vyjack, Palace Malice alertly latched on to Moreno out of the gate and relentlessly shadowed him through a first quarter-mile in 24.06, the half in 47.48 and a pretty crisp 1:11.13 for six of nine furlongs.
He made a steady, controlled move at the half-mile pole to approach even ground on the outside of Moreno at the quarter pole, and at the top of the stretch, Smith and Ortiz got busy.
Palace Malice finally got in front at the eighth pole, while not much was happening behind them other than Will Take Charge and jockey Junior Alvarado ranging up down the middle of the track to put himself in position to get place or show.
As Smith and Palace Malice finished the job, Will Take Charge got up for second, and Moreno was never threatened for third.
“Everything went absolutely as we talked about it this morning when Mike and I went over the race,” Pletcher said. “We felt like Moreno would be the pacesetter. What we were trying to figure out is sort of whether he’d be laying second or third. The horse broke really well, he went to the first turn very relaxed and we got a beautiful trip. He got into a good, comfortable rhythm down the backside, relaxed nicely and finished up very well. It’s a very, very good time.”
“He was really good early,” Smith said. “He jumped on [the bit] a little bit coming up the backstretch, I talked him out of it and he was great. He’s still learning. There’s room to grow.”
Will Take Charge, who competed in all three Triple Crown races, finishing no better than seventh, went off at 17-1 and gave trainer D. Wayne Lukas reason to believe he should head to the Travers, as well.
“I do my best work when they’re 20-1,” Lukas said. “We’ve had good luck zeroing in on the bigger races in my career. About the time they write us off, here we come again. At the top of the stretch, I thought we had a shot at it because they were developing a little heat up front.”
Same goes for Moreno’s trainer, the voluble Eric Guillot, who made all kinds of flamboyant predictions before the race, and ultimately settled for another crack at Palace Malice.
“I just wanted him to run good enough to prove he belongs and come back for the Travers,” he said. “We beat the rest of the field convincingly. He got beat by a good horse, beat by the Belmont winner. If I don’t get pressured, the second-place horse doesn’t beat me.”
Perhaps the most disappointing performance was turned in by Mylute, who appeared to be progressing with a fifth in the Derby and a good third in the Preakness.
At just under 3-1, he went off as the second favorite but never got in the game under Rosie Napravnik and wilted at the half-mile pole to finish eighth.
“She said just that he wasn’t the same,” trainer Tom Amoss said. “[She said] he made a little airway noise past the finish line. We’re going to look into that, see if that’s it.
Palace Malice is the first Belmont winner to also win the Jim Dandy since Conquistador Cielo did it in 1982, although Conquistador Cielo also snuck in a Dwyer win between his Belmont and Jim Dandy.
“I’m not one that looks ahead too quickly, but the Travers is fabulous,” 84-year-old Dogwood founder Cot Campbell said. “Having lost all opportunity in the Derby, we would be doubly anxious to make amends in the Travers.”