Almost as soon as all nineteen horses crossed the wire and before the excitement could truly hit in Camp Orb, criticism of Mike Smith’s ride on Palace Malice came flying in from all sides. After three tough losses in last year’s Triple Crown races in which his mounts ran winning races only to be caught at the wire, you can believe that Smith did not want to go through that again. However, a combination of an equipment change and circumstances morphed a well thought out plan into a nightmare trip.
Leading up to the running of Kentucky Derby 139, the Todd Pletcher trained Palace Malice worked with a set of blinkers. Exercise rider Jake Nelson said that Palace Malice felt more focused and intent on the job at hand while wearing the blinkers. Pletcher was also pleased with how his Curlin colt worked with them and made the decision to run him in the Derby with the added equipment. Going into the race, his and jockey Mike Smith’s game plan was for Palace Malice to sit just off the speed, but that plan was shot to pieces before the field even hit the clubhouse turn.
With the exception of Java’s War and Orb who was a beat slow, the field broke well. As expected, Goldencents, Falling Sky, and Itsmyluckyday all flashed early speed, but Palace Malice was right there with them. Those four went straight to the front out in the middle of the track with Oxbow right there with them down toward the rail. As the field began to converge and take up position, Falling Sky angled to the inside and pinched back Itsmyluckyday, leaving Oxbow, Goldencents, Palace Malice out on the lead from the rail out. Initially, Palace Malice allowed Goldencents to go by him, but as soon as that foe had gained a half length advantage, Palace Malice took off.
You can see in the head on shot that Smith at first attempted to stick to the plan and rate Palace Malice behind the speed, but as soon as it became apparent that the Curlin colt wanted no part of that plan, Smith realized that he had two choices and both would likely end with the same result. He could let Palace Malice go to the front, dictate the pace, and tire in the stretch; or he could fight his mount causing the colt to expend his energy battling his rider rather than battling his rivals and still tire in the stretch. Smith chose the former rather than the latter and sat chilly on Palace Malice, neither fighting him not encouraging him on the lead, until the far turn.
Given the circumstances, Mike Smith made the best decision he possibly could with the hand he had been dealt. No jockey ever wants to battle a rank mount, especially on a sloppy racetrack. Had Smith attempted to rate Palace Malice, he ran the risk of the colt potentially injuring himself while fighting to get his head. In such a large field, that could have been disastrous not only for Smith and Palace Malice but also for the other horses and riders on the track.