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Belmont Stakes: Palace Malice steals the show

Sunday, June 9, 2013
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— In 1969, Cot Campbell concocted the notion of racing partnerships for owners.

In 1996, he formed a partnership of a different sort, with a young, unknown trainer from Texas who had less than 10 horses in his stable.

On Saturday, the partners enjoyed their finest moment together, when Dogwood Stable’s Palace Malice and Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith won the 145th Belmont Stakes in front of 47,562 at Belmont Park.

Campbell, the 85-year-old Dogwood managing partner, sat next to the trainer, who has the most powerful operation in North America now, and savored that moment as Campbell heads into the twilight of his ground-breaking career.

“He might’ve lied a little bit about his age; I think he said he was 30 and he was probably 29,” Campbell said, as Todd Pletcher chuckled from the chair next to him. “But it’s been a great relationship, and we hit it off and never had a bad moment. He will go down as one of the great trainers in the game, and at least I had the good sense to give him a shot early on.”

The 45-year-old Pletcher saddled five of the 14 horses in the Belmont, and was rewarded with the third victory in a Triple Crown race of his career, after the filly Rags to Riches’ 2007 Belmont and Super Saver’s 2010 Kentucky Derby.

“Rags to Riches was sort of getting that monkey off your back; I hadn’t won a classic,” Pletcher said. “After awhile, it starts to build on you a little bit. It was tremendously exciting, but also a relief. This one was just … exciting.”

The race featured a rematch between Derby winner Orb and Preakness winner Oxbow, and it was the Preakness winner and Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens who figured much more prominently in the outcome, latching on to very fast early fractions, then remarkably hanging on for second, 31⁄4 lengths behind the 13-1 shot Palace Malice.

Orb, the 2-1 betting favorite, put in a run to get into position to perhaps threaten, but ran evenly down the stretch and was third, 13⁄4 lengths behind Oxbow, without ever act­ually becoming a threat.

As a son of Curlin, who lost to Rags to Riches in the 2007 Belmont in a spectacular stretch duel, Palace Malice had the breeding to win the mile-and-a-half third leg of the Triple Crown.

What he lacked was a track record of having put together all the components of a winning race.

He entered the Belmont with just one meager victory on his resume, in a maiden race last summer at Saratoga Race Course. His Louisiana Derby this spring was a disaster, and his 12th in the Kentucky Derby was another disaster in which Palace Malice was “running scared” on a lead he wanted no part of, Smith said.

For the Belmont, Pletcher decided to remove the blinkers Palace Malice wore in the Derby, and he and Smith were able to find a spot outside from the No. 12 post that allowed the chestnut colt to establish a metronomic stride while stalking the group of front-runners, Frac Daddy, Freedom Child and Oxbow.

They were particularly interested in what Oxbow was doing, keeping him in their sights all the way to the half-mile pole.

“I think he ran through the bridle [in the Derby],” Smith said. “Whereas today, even though we were going at a pretty good clip, he was just so relaxed. Down the backside, he pricked his ears every now and then and took a deep breath of air. I was very confident he would run well.”

Oxbow had been in contact with ridiculously fast early fractions set by Frac Daddy in 23.11 for the quarter-mile, 46.66 for the half and 1:10.95 for six furlongs.

“We were going entirely way too fast to even be competitive [at the finish],” Stevens said. “That’s why I’m so proud of this colt. I didn’t think I’d hit the board, going down the backstretch. We were going that fast. I started to get in a bit of a fight with him, and I said, ‘You know what, I’m not going to fight you, little buddy. Just go about your business.’ And finally, we put away Freedom Child.

“Mike set up a perfect trip on the outside and had to be loving what he was seeing in front of him.”

Smith urged Palace Malice to the front going around the grandstand turn and drew abreast of Oxbow just shy of the quarter pole.

“I was just keeping a close eye on him to be able to steal it at some point,” Smith said. “When I ranged up next to him, it was like a movie scene. He looked over at me, and I could just see his face plain as day, and he said ‘Go on with it, little brother. You’re moving better than me.’

“One of the closers was going to have to run the race of a lifetime, I felt like I was moving that good.”

“The key thing was he was relaxed,” Pletcher said. “Mike was able to get him in a comfortable rhythm. The horse has trained really impressively, and if we could get him into that rhythm, it wouldn’t matter if he was on the lead, fourth, fifth, wherever he was, as long as Mike had him in that big gallop that he has.”

Palace Malice got past Oxbow, and although the victory was then out of reach for the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Oxbow, he doggedly held on for second despite having been involved in the incredibly fast early portions of the race.

“He had to be tired, but he never gave up. He never quit,” Stevens said. “When Palace Malice finally pulled up after the race, my horse galloped by him. He wasn’t going to stop until he was back in front again.”

Orb and jockey Joel Rosario, who were fourth in the Preakness, were left with too much to do, and not nearly enough energy to do it.

His Belmont third ended what trainer Shug McGaughey described as a whirlwind of attention and excitement over the last five weeks since he won the Derby for the first time in his Hall of Fame career.

“He didn’t show any signs of [wear and tear] until maybe today,” McGaughey said. “As they say, after you’ve run in the first two, sometimes the quarter pole gets you [in the Belmont]. I think the three-sixteenths pole got him a little bit today.”I’m proud about what we’ve accomplished and not hanging my head at all.”

For Dogwood, Palace Malice’s Belmont win was the second in a Triple Crown race for the partners.

The stable won the 1990 Preakness with Summer Squall, which was a breakthrough moment in the emergence of the partnership model for owning horses, in which people purchase shares in a horse or package of horses.

As stables like Team Valor and West Point Thoroughbreds have flourished these days, Campbell, one of the most prominent figures in the sport, is winding down his involvement in racing.

“I don’t think this’ll accelerate my retirement, I’ll put it that way,” he said with a chuckle. “I have cut back. We’ve got 30, 35 horses. God knows, I’ve had the most wonderful life a human being could have. This is a great chapter in it. Like I’ve said, I don’t want to chase any rabbits I can’t catch.”

“I know Mr. Campbell pretty well, and I imagine he’s got Sar­atoga on his mind [for Palace Malice],” Pletcher said. “Mr. Campbell gave me an opportunity when no one knew who I was and I didn’t have any horses. He’s been a supporter of me, basically, since the very beginning, and he’s been very good to me.”

 
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