Palace Malice never wore blinkers before the Kentucky Derby, when he turned into a runaway train for jockey Mike Smith. They came off for Saturday's Belmont Stakes, when the underachieving colt finally took control in a million-dollar race.
The wild horse that blasted through a 451/5-second half-mile and faded to 12th at Churchill Downs became a patient pursuer at Belmont Park, where Palace Malice and Smith passed Oxbow approaching the quarter pole and drew off for a 31/4-length victory. Derby winner Orb, the 2-1 favorite, was third, 1¾ lengths farther back and a length ahead of Incognito before a crowd of 47,562.
"We always felt he had a big win in him,'' trainer Todd Pletcher said. "We never lost confidence.''
The 13-1 shot won for only the second time in eight career starts and for the first time beyond 6½ furlongs. The son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin was 0-for-5 this year, although he was second in Keeneland's Blue Grass and third in the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds.
''I kept saying I know there's a big race in there,'' Pletcher said. "He got close a couple of times but didn't quite get it done.''
It was the second Belmont victory for Smith (Drosselmeyer, 2010) and for Pletcher (Rags to Riches, 2007). It was the second classic trophy for 85-year-old Cot Campbell's Dogwood Stable, and the first since Summer Squall's 1990 Preakness.
"This is the mother of all great moments,'' Campbell said. "I'm proud for all my great partners, for Todd and for Mike. I'm proud for the people of Aiken, S.C. They'll be dancing in the streets.''
Pletcher saddled a record five runners, with the others running fifth (Revolutionary), sixth (the filly Unlimited Budget with Rosie Napravnik), seventh (Overanalyze) and 12th (Midnight Taboo). Never was a man so thrilled to go 1-for-5.
Dogwood was one of Pletcher's first clients when he left Oxbow's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, and went out on his own in 1995.
"It was an emotional win for me because of the Dogwood connection,'' Pletcher said. "They supported me from the very beginning, and to win a big race for them is really gratifying.''
Oxbow survived a three-way duel that cooked Freedom Child (13th) and Frac Daddy (last of 14). Gary Stevens moved aggressively early and battled Frac Daddy and Freedom Child through strong fractions -- 46.66 seconds for a half-mile, 1:10.95 for 6 furlongs. Palace Malice capitalized on the hot pace just as Orb did in the Derby. Smith had him perfectly positioned, never farther back than fourth.
"Taking the blinkers off made all the difference,'' Smith said. "The whole time he was just enjoying the trip, and I was full of run turning for home.''
It was a $323.50 exacta for buddies Smith, 47, and Stevens, 50, both Hall of Famers. "I was keeping a close eye on Gary because he's been known to steal these things,'' Smith said, alluding to Oxbow's front-running Preakness upset. "I was moving better than him at the three-eighths pole. When I ranged up alongside him, he looked over, and it was like a big brother telling a little brother, 'You go on with him, big boy.' ''
It was the second time in three years that three different horses won a classic, and the eighth consecutive year that the Belmont winner skipped the Preakness. Palace Malice paid $29.60 after being timed in 2:30.70 on a fast track. He was tiring after taking a two-length lead at the furlong pole, and the final quarter-mile went in a sluggish 27.58 seconds.
He was alone nearing the wire, but Smith wasn't taking anything for granted. A year ago, he led until the final strides on Paynter before Union Rags came up the rail to nail him by a neck.
"I thought it was locked up last year, and look what happened,'' said Smith, who beat himself up over that one. This time he gushed like someone who'd never won a big one.
"It's incredible. I really want to thank Cot Campbell and Todd for sticking with me,'' Smith said. "They could have easily taken me off, but they stuck with the old guy and it paid off.''