From the beginning, the talent of Palace Malice looked unmistakable to trainer Todd Pletcher. Only the Dogwood Stable colt's development and maturation took time.
As a 3-year-old, Palace Malice ran exclusively with the very best, and when he was good – in victories in the Belmont Stakes and Jim Dandy – he was very good. When beaten, usually not by much, little mistakes cost him dearly.
Those little mistakes are now just memories, and Palace Malice is undefeated this year in four starts, with the past three ranking as perhaps the fastest performances of his career. On Saturday, the son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin faces a stern test that will further define his quality as he goes into the starting gate as the even-money favorite to win the 87th running of the Grade 1, $1.5 million Whitney at Saratoga Race Course.
The Whitney and the Grade 1, $500,000 Test for 3-year-old fillies will be televised by NBC from 5-6 p.m.
The Whitney, a 1 1/8-mile “Win and You're In” race for the Breeders' Cup Classic, is uniformly regarded as one of the most prized races for older horses in the country. It has been won by a galaxy of legends, including Discovery (1934-36), War Admiral (1938), Devil Diver (1944), Tom Fool (1953), Kelso (1961, '63, '65), Dr. Fager (1968), Alydar (1978), Lady's Secret (1986), Easy Goer (1989), and Blame (2010).
“I think you certainly have to put the Whitney up there as one of the most coveted prizes in American racing,” Pletcher said. “It's a historic race. It's the focal race for older horses at our most prestigious meet. It carries a lot of weight for championship honors. It's a race we hold in very high regard.”
Palace Malice is seeking to become the 13th horse to complete the Metropolitan Handicap-Whitney double, but he must defeat reigning 3-year-old champion and 2013 Travers winner Will Take Charge, fleet runner-up Moreno, 2012 Travers dead-heat winner Golden Ticket, and five other graded stakes winners.
Four of the top five finishers from last year's thrilling Travers return to Saratoga to contest the Whitney, and the entire field of nine has combined for 21 graded stakes victories.
Yet, Palace Malice, who drew post position 5 for the race, remains the one to beat.
“I think the biggest difference between this year, so far, and last year has just been his consistency,” Pletcher said. “There were signs of brilliance last year – the Belmont, obviously, and the Jim Dandy – but he was prone to make some mistakes. He cost himself the Blue Grass when he shied away from the track's footprints close to the wire and went back to his left lead. He cost himself the Travers when he missed the break. He cost himself any chance of winning the Breeders' Cup Classic when he missed the break. So it seems like this year – and hopefully I'm not jinxing myself – he's been very professional, and he's broke alertly and put himself in good spots.”
Palace Malice will contest the Whitney off of victories in back-to-back one-turn miles at Belmont Park – the Grade 3 Westchester and the Grade 1 Met Mile.
“I would expect him to be somewhat sharp, no matter what the distance of the last race was,” Pletcher said. “I actually think that despite winning the most prestigious mile race that he's better at a mile and an eighth. I'm looking forward to getting him back around two turns.”
While Palace Malice figures to settle into a close-up stalking trip, Will Take Charge, the second choice on the morning line at 4-1, figures to settle farther back off the pace before making his big late charge.
Will Take Charge, trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, returns to the scene of his greatest triumph, a nose victory over Moreno and Kentucky Derby winner Orb in the 2013 Travers. Despite running out of the money in all three Triple Crown races, Will Take Charge earned championship honors by also winning the Grade 1 Clark Handicap against older horses as well as the Grade 2 Rebel and Pennsylvania Derby. He finished second by a nose to Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
This year, the 4-year-old son of Unbridled's Song has started in five major races, winning the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap and finishing second in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster, Donn and Santa Anita handicaps.
“We're the champion until someone dethrones us,” said Lukas, who joked that he got “an upset stomach” when Will Take Charge drew the inside post for the Whitney. “We're the champion, we earned it last year, [and] we're not making apologies for anything.
“He's quite a horse, and I think he's the best horse in the country right now,” Lukas said. “We have to go out and prove it; prove it a couple of different times, I'm sure – three, four more times to get where we want to get. Like I said in the press conference, I feel like he's still the champion, and I feel very good about the fact that we all get together on the same racetrack.”
Despite victories last year in the Grade 2 West Virginia Derby and Super Derby as well as the Grade 3 Illinois Derby, 6-1 third choice Departing remains somewhat of an unknown heading into the Whitney.
Trained by Al Stall Jr., the Clairborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider homebred contested one Grade 1 race last year, finishing sixth in the Preakness, while scoring five victories in eight starts. This year, Stall started Departing out in a one-turn mile April 30 at Churchill Downs and then went directly to the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs, where he made the lead between calls in the stretch before finishing third behind Moonshine Mullin and Will Take Charge.
Stall sees Departing set up for a big effort in his third start of the year but realizes this is the gelding's most formidable test.
“Without a doubt, mainly because of Palace Malice,” Stall said. “He ran against straight 3-year-olds last year. He was on the low roads. It wasn't the best 3-year-olds in the country. Now, as a 4-year-old, he has to run against handicappers. For me to be competitive, he will have to run the best race of his career.”
In a field full of stalkers, Moreno stands out as the confirmed speed horse in the Whitney, and he enters the race off a rejuvenated second-place effort in the Grade 2 Suburban Handicap on July 5 at Belmont Park.
That race marked a return to using blinkers for Moreno, 10-1 on the morning line for Southern Equine Stable and colorful trainer Eric Guillot. The equipment had been removed for the Met Mile, his prior start, and Moreno finished last in a field of 12, never reaching contention.
The gelded 4-year-old son of Ghostzapper has shown an affinity for Saratoga, finishing third last year behind Palace Malice and Will Take Charge in the Jim Dandy and then second at 31-1 in the Travers, fighting gamely for the place after falling back to third in the stretch.
Moreno tuned up for the Whitney with a sensational work July 26, zipping five furlongs in 58.91 seconds – fastest of 49 at the distance – under jockey Junior Alvarado.
“I can't change what he is. A round wheel still rolls the best,” Guillot said. “I can't make the oval or square wheel roll any better. I've got to break good. I've got to get fractions that are good enough, and I've got to have a horse like Palace Malice not have his A+ game. Truth be known, I only beat him a length when he got left in the gate. Who was the best horse in the Travers? Not Moreno or Will Take Charge. Palace Malice was, and he's vindicated that all year.”
On his best days, Godolphin Racing's Romansh has produced Beyer Speed Figures that make him a serious threat to win. The 4-year-old son of Bernardini has taken three of five starts at the Whitney distance, most recently a score in the Grade 3 Excelsior in March at Aqueduct.
Romansh finished a willing third in the Met Mile but then regressed and finished fifth in the Suburban.
“He kind of ran up there like he was going to finish strong [in the Suburban], but, for whatever reason, it was one of those races. Hopefully, he bounces back,” said trainer Tom Albertrani. “He's got it in him to run a big one.”
After winning the Travers in a dead-heat with Alpha in 2012, Golden Ticket didn't get to run in 2013 at Saratoga. Trainer Ken McPeek believes his millionaire son of Speightstown, who, like Romansh, is capable of turning in giant efforts, deserves the chance.
“He likes this racetrack,” said McPeek, who sent out Golden Ticket to a second-place finish last year in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. “The timing is good, and he's doing well, I should have run him here last year. It seemed like the way the ball bounced it didn't work out.”
The field is completed by three multiple graded stakes-winning millionaires: Itsmyluckyday, 12-1 on the morning line; Last Gunfighter, 15-1; and Prayer for Relief, 20-1.
The field for the Grade 1, $1.5 million Whitney:
The field for the Grade 1, $1.5 million Whitney:
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