Vicar’s In Trouble rebounded in smashing fashion in the Derby; Untappable was dominant in the Oaks, but from my perspective, the star of stars Saturday at Fair Grounds was Dogwood Stable’s Palace Malice. An unlucky loser twice in the Big Easy in 2013, the son of Curlin came back to New Orleans as a bigger, stronger version of the sophomore colt who was defeated in both the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby last year. The result was an impressive score in today's Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap.
Inexplicably sent off as the 6-5 second choice behind the 11-10 Normandy Invasion, the Belmont Stakes winner gained a comfortable stalking position from his outside post position behind the early speed of Bradester. When his Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith asked for a little bit of speed on the far turn, his charge responded powerfully, quickly moving up to the leader. Bradester had no answer for the challenge, leaving only the rallying Normandy Invasion as the threat.
The favorite asked Palace Malice what he had in the early portion of the stretch, but surely did not like the answer, as the Todd Pletcher trained four-year-old turned away the challenge, and coasted home to a sharp 4 ¾-length winner. Normandy Invasion was much the best of the rest and had an even bigger margin for second over local star Sunbean.
“This horse holds a special place in my heart,” said the happy winning rider. “I’m just so happy that I got to reunite with him and he didn’t let us down. He might be better than he was last year. He did that pretty handily today.”
On a personal note, this was the sixth time I’ve had the chance to see Palace Malice in person (three wins), and I can say without question that I’ve never seen him look better. The 114 Beyer he earned in today’s smart score would seem to back up my opinion. From the paddock, to the post parade, to every bit of the nine furlongs, he was a striking image that looked the part of an excellent horse still on the improve.
After winning last year’s Belmont Stakes, Palace Malice was able to win the Jim Dandy over the 3yo champ, Will Take Charge, before being hampered by slow starts in both the Travers and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He is now 2-for-2 this year, having began the year with a very game score in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap. If that performance in South Florida demonstrated his toughness, than this one reaffirmed his talent as one of America’s best horses.
The victory raised Palace Malice’s career mark to five wins in 14 lifetime starts, and pushed his career earnings ever nearer the $2 million mark. By way of comparison, the final time of 1:48.93 compares very favorably to both the Derby and Oaks wins on the same card by Untappable and Vicar’s In Trouble.
A late foal, it would seem that Palace Malice is putting it together and may well be leaving the need for excuses for his losses behind him. 2014 features an excellent group of older males, but after seeing him today, I would not rate any higher than the new improved version of Palace Malice.