Maybe it's time to change the Belmont Stakes' nickname from "Test of the Champion" to "Great Leap of Faith." Although Palace Malice was 1-for-7, including 0-for-5 this year, Todd Pletcher thought he deserved a chance Saturday. The son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin rewarded his trainer's confidence and patience with a 3 1/4-length breakthrough victory.
Even if a 3-year-old has continually disappointed his connections and bettors, that's no reason to believe he can't win at 1 1/2 miles, a distance that American horses no longer are bred to handle. The Belmont is a throwback to long ago when stamina in the thoroughbred was considered as important as speed. Now if you have a fresh horse with any upside, you've got a shot.
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"I felt like he had a big one in him," Pletcher said. "I kept waiting for it to materialize in the afternoon."
When few expected it, it did. For the eighth consecutive year and 11th in the last 12, a horse that missed the Preakness ruled in Elmont. "If you want to win the Belmont," Pletcher said, "it makes sense to skip the middle one." Palace Malice ($29.60) continued the recent trend of payoffs such as $142.50, $79, $74, $51.50, $28 and $25.60.
Two excellent workouts and a strong distance pedigree gave Pletcher hope. A colt whose only win came at 6 1/2 furlongs last summer was home free after the 11th of 12 furlongs. It didn't matter that Palace Malice's final quarter-mile (27.58 seconds) was the slowest in 30 years, because the 13 behind him had even less energy. In the stretch, he actually extended his lead over runner-up Oxbow by 2 1/2 lengths.
So what does it all mean, and what have we learned?
That no Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont result should be classified as shocking, and that there's no reason to expect another Triple Crown winner. It was Orb's turn to raise false hopes, but he was nowhere at Pimlico (fourth) and Belmont (third). Few expected 15-1 Oxbow to crush "sure thing" Orb by nine lengths in Baltimore. Oxbow earned a record 14th classic trophy for trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who could foresee a sweep someday with "a standout in a mediocre group."
After seeing Point Given, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Big Brown fall short in that scenario, I doubt it. Yet, why is it so awful that there's been no Triple Crown since 1978? Listen to Orb's trainer, Shug McGaughey, who enjoyed what was good and shook off the disappointments.
"It's been fun," McGaughey said. "I've got no problems with anything. Everything's fine with me. I just wish we showed a little better performance in the Preakness and the Belmont."
Notes & quotes: McGaughey said Point of Entry suffered a "slight condylar fracture" in his left hind leg Saturday while winning the Manhattan Handicap. Surgery is scheduled for this week, and the trainer hopes the turf standout can race again . . . Pletcher said Palace Malice will be aimed for Saratoga's Jim Dandy and Travers.