Photo: Coglianese Photos
Palace Malice opened his 4-year-old season in dramatic fashion, surging in deep stretch after being passed by two horses to win the $250,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap (G2) on Saturday. Making his first start since finishing sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) on Nov. 2, Belmont Stakes (G1) winner Palace Malice hit the wire in 1:33.80 for the one-turn mile, just .67 off the track record set by Normandy Invasion on Feb. 22.
Favored at 6-5 in the field of seven, Palace Malice ($4.60) found another gear running on the inside under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez to beat 2012 Travers (G1) winner Golden Ticket by a head. It was another half-length back to Canadian classic winner Uncaptured in third.
Preakness (G1) runner-up Itsmyluckyday, running for the first time since last June, was fourth, followed by Navarez, Sr. Quisqueyano and Gulfstream Park Sprint (G3) winner Falling Sky.
“He pressed solid fractions, was carrying top weight and went a little wide. It looked like they took a couple big runs at him and he fought back,” winning trainer Todd Pletcher said. “It was a heck of a horse race, and a huge effort off the layoff. Those are good horses, too. You’ve got a Travers winner and a Prince of Wales winner and the runner-up in the Preakness. It was a good race, I thought.”
Falling Sky and Itsmyluckyday took turns setting the early pace through a quarter-mile in 23.34 seconds and a half in 45.46, with Velazquez and Palace Malice tracking them in third on their outside. Palace Malice moved up to take the lead around the far turn as Falling Sky dropped back.
Uncaptured swung around Palace Malice and went by to take the lead into midstretch, as Golden Ticket made a bold run on the far outside to challenge. Palace Malice continued to dig in along the rail and came on again to get his head in front.
“Once he got to the top of the stretch, he kind of idled a little bit and kind of got surprised by the horses on the outside of him,” Velazquez said, “but I got after him and he responded right away. He got to the front and thought he was finished, basically. The other horse came on the outside of him and surprised him, but he got back into the game. He was very gutsy and I’m proud of him that he did it.”
The Gulfstream Park Handicap was the shortest race for Palace Malice since finishing second in a seven-furlong allowance at Gulfstream last January. He won the 1 ½-mile Belmont in June and the 1 1/8-mile Jim Dandy in July, and was fourth by less than a length after a troubled start in the 1 ¼-mile Travers last year.
“He ran every step of the way and put himself in the game early, which we wanted to do,” Pletcher said. “It’s pretty rare you have a horse that can win the Belmont and also run 1:33 and change and stalk solid fractions. It tells you how good of a horse he is and how much quality he has.”
Golden Ticket, who dead-heated with Alpha in the 2012 Travers and was second in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) last fall, went off at 7-1 in his first start of the year for trainer Ken McPeek.
“He ran super. It was a really, really good race,” McPeek said. “He’s a really good horse. He never should have been 7-1. That was a joke. He’s just classy. He runs good off a layoff and he likes a flat mile.”
Itsmyluckyday won the Gulfstream Park Derby and Holy Bull (G3) and was second in the Florida Derby (G1) last winter before finishing 15th in the Kentucky Derby (G1) and 1 ¾ lengths behind winner Oxbow in the Preakness. His season ended after sustaining a pelvic fracture in the Pegasus (G3) at Monmouth Park.
“He was a fresh horse. I thought he’d show speed,” trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. said. “I would have preferred if he was sitting off those horses a little and stalked them, but he got tired. He had a license to get tired, and he’ll get a lot out of this race. He’ll be tough next time.”