ELMONT, New York -- The spring begins each year with the search for a super horse, a horse that can not only win the Triple Crown and summon up memories of great runners from bygone days, but can also speak to us in the fairy tale language of rich backstories that make us feel connected to the horse and his human connections. It is much to ask of a single animal; we haven't seen his kind in four decades. What we get instead, are quirky flirtations with history, pieces of greatness and mediocrity, success and failure, scattered from Louisville to New York over a long, five weeks. We seldom find a super horse and we have not yet found one this year.
On the first Saturday in May it was Palace Malice, a bay colt named in part for an ugly event that occurred at an NBA game nine years ago (and in part because his mother was named Palace Rumor), whose panicked dash through the first half mile made a mess of the Kentucky Derby and set up the stretch-running victory that made Orb look like a Triple Crown contender. Saturday evening under a low, setting sun, it was Palace Malice who again defined the race, this time in the final half mile, this time pouncing on Preakness winner Oxbow and crawling slowly home to win the Belmont Stakes by 3 ¼ lengths. For the fourth time in five years (and the sixth time in the last eight), the three Triple Crown races were won by three different horses. Only once in the last nine years -- Big Brown in 2008 -- has a horse run the Belmont with a chance at ending the Triple Crown drought that began after Affirmed's Belmont in 1978. (I'll Have Another won the Derby and Preakness in 2012, but scratched from the Belmont).
Yet if the race did not find excellence (Preakness winner Oxbow held on for second and Derby winner Orb was an unthreatening third), it also did not lack for emotion. It was the second Classic victory for Palace Malice's owner, Cothran (Cot) Campbell, whose South Carolina-based Dogwood Stable was one of the first racing organizations to actively build multi-member syndicates for ownership of active racehorses. (Dogwood previously won the 1990 Preakness with Summer Squall). Palace Malice is trained by the ubiquitous Todd Pletcher, who saddled five of the 14 Belmont starters, and took special satisfaction in his second Belmont win (after filly Rags To Riches in 2007) because Campbell had been among the first owners to send him horses after Pletcher left D. Wayne Lukas and hung out his own shingle in 1995. "They supported me from the beginning,'' said Pletcher after the Belmont. "To win a big race for them is really gratifying.''
For the jockey, too, there was a slice of redemption. Mike Smith, 47, is among the most respected riders in the U.S., seemingly defying age. He was the regular rider on the great filly Zenyatta, who lost only once in 20 lifetime starts; three years ago Smith won the Belmont with stretch-running 13-1 shot (remember those odds) Drosselmeyer. But a year ago, Smith tried to nurse Paynter the full mile and half of the Belmont on the lead, and then gave the rail to Union Rags and John Velazquez -- a cardinal sin -- and was beaten in the final strides. "I thought it was locked up,'' Smith said Saturday, recalling that defeat. "Got through down on the inside on me.''
It is often true in Triple Crown races that jockeys collectively ride to correct the sins committed in the previous race. In the Derby, Palace Malice ripped through such fast early fractions -- just over 45 seconds for the half mile -- that any horse near the early pace was cooked. Two weeks later in Preakness, those same jockeys let Gary Stevens jog away to an easy lead in 48.60 seconds. There was little doubt that the Belmont, even at 12 furlongs, would get quick early. "I thought there would be pace,'' said Orb's trainer, Shug McGaughey. And there was: Frac Daddy (jockey: Alan Garcia), a 30-1 shot, and speedy Freedom Child (Luis Saez), winner of the Peter Pan Stakes a week after the Kentucky Derby, dueled into the backstretch in 46.66 seconds for a half mile and 1:10.95 for three-quarters, blazingly fast for such a long race.
Stevens had to keep Oxbow close, but seethed. "Frac Daddy and Freedom Child were going crazy down the backstretch," said Stevens. "It was ridiculous. But they had a right to be in the race, so they could do whatever they wanted.'' In the end, the two early leaders would finish last and second-to-last, more than 60 lengths behind Palace Malice.
With a half mile to run and leaders fading, Stevens nudged Oxbow into the lead, not expecting to last. "We had been going so fast, I thought I had no chance to hit the board,'' he said. "Then he took a big gulp of air and I thought, 'Maybe.''' But Stevens was also aware of a horse to his outside, though he didn't know who it was. It was Palace Malice, a very different horse than the one had gone crazy from the gate in the Derby and finished 12th in the 19-horse field.
First, the name: Campbell regularly runs contests that allow stable workers to name his horses. For this homebred son of dam Palace Rumor and sire Curlin, the two-time Horse of the Year (2007-'08), one of the workers suggested Palace Malice, likely connected to the notorious NBA brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills on Nov. 2004. He had been a hard luck colt before the Run for the Roses, finishing a troubled seventh in the Louisiana Derby and then getting startled and jumping a tire track in the Blue Grass Stakes, finishing second. Pletcher put blinkers on him for the first time in the Derby, trying to focus his attention (and avoid further tire-track hurdling). He also put Smith on him, the colt's fifth rider in seven lifetime races.
Prior to the Derby, Palace Malice had never led early in a race. Yet he darted from the gate in the Derby and tore through those suicidal splits. It might have been the blinkers and it might have been the conditions. Smith said, "I asked him out of [the gate, in the Derby]. I asked him out of there and with all that noise [from the sloppy track at Churchill Downs] behind him, he was just running scared. He ran completely through the bridle. In hindsight, if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't ask him out of there. It wasn't the prettiest of things.'' Pletcher and Campbell let Palace Malice sit out the Preakness while Orb and Oxbow ran. Then they stayed with Smith. They didn't stay with the blinkers. He went off at 13-1, like Drosselmeyer in 2010.
The combination was just enough to settle Palace Malice. It's rare that a horse wins the Belmont from far off the pace; Palace Malice was close enough to a fast pace to strike, but far enough away that he wasn't roasted by it. In the turn, Smith let loose of Palace Malice and he easily drew even with Oxbow. "Mikey had me any time he wanted me,'' said Stevens, and that is exactly what he told Smith as Palace Malice moved past. Go on little brother, you're moving better than me. Smith compared it to a scene from a movie, probably the famous scene in Seabiscuit when George Wolff and the 'Biscuit pull away from War Admiral and jockey Charlie Kurtsinger in their 1939 match race and Wolff shouts, "See ya later, Charlie.''
Behind those two, jockey Joel Rosario was getting Orb rolling. It was Orb's dominant victory in the Kentucky Derby, along with his exquisite breeding and his old-school trainer and owners, that had given the sport an early and dire case of Triple Crown fever. But Orb ran a flat, unimpressive third in the Preakness. Here a modest (but fairly typical non-Triple Crown Belmont) crowd of 47,563, rose to pull Orb to the leaders. Yet he never got close. "I got him moving a little bit,'' said Rosario, his face caked in dirt from running back in the pack. "Then the horse got a little tired. They get tired going a mile and a half. I couldn't even catch that horse for second.''
McGaughey said, "[Orb] put in a pretty good run when he went, but those horses didn't come back. We were just too far back.''
Oxbow clung to a dying second. In front of him, Palace Malice dug in and was never challenged in the final quarter mile. It was a race of complete attrition. The final half mile was run in 54.23 seconds, the slowest since at least 1970, a by-product of the early fractions that exhausted the field. Yet even in the absence of a Triple Crown, the Belmont stands tall enough to make such details momentarily irrelevant. "I don't know what would beat this,'' said Campbell after the race, wearing his trademark fedora. "It comes at, you know, what is certainly the twilight of my career, to put it euphemistically.'' To win this race is enough. The search for a super horse waits.