Whitney hero Moreno was sprightly Sunday morning, bouncing around in his stall a day after taking the field gate-to-wire in one of the most prestigious races of the Saratoga meet.
Moreno's landmark victory was a long time in the making. It took the Eric Guillot-trained gelding 10 starts to break his maiden, which he did over a muddy track on June 8, 2013, at Belmont Park. He followed up that performance with a seven-length win in the Dwyer at Big Sandy, but failed to find the winner's circle in eight starts thereafter while placing in the Jim Dandy, Travers, Pennsylvania Derby, Charles Town Classic and Suburban Handicap.
Despite the string of winless efforts, Guillot, who trains Moreno for breeder Southern Equine Stable, was not surprised by his star pupil's breakthrough victory in the 1 1/8-mile race.
"We finally got the fractions we needed," Guillot explained. "I don't think this was a new peak for him. He was already at his peak."
What's next for Moreno is undecided, but Guillot, still savoring the biggest victory of his training career, pondered a few different options outside his barn on Sunday morning.
"We'll look at the (Grade 1, $600,000) Woodward (on August 30), or maybe give him a break and point to the (Grade 1, $1 million) Jockey Club Gold Cup (on September 27 at Belmont)," he said. "It's a million-dollar race at 1 1/4 miles; he ran huge in the (10-furlong) Suburban (at Belmont prior to the Whitney). From the 11 hole those fractions were very fast. I think 1 1/4 miles is his best distance."
Should he elect to run in the Woodward, Moreno may face reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan, who remains possible for the race following a sharp five-furlong move in 1:02 Saturday over Saratoga's fast main track.
Confronted with the possibility of going up against Wise Dan, Guillot simply said, "I'm not scared of anyone."
Guillot is hopeful that his charge is on a Horse of the Year trajectory, but admits that he'll have to do more to earn the honor.
"Palace Malice already has four graded stakes victories and a win in the Met Mile," the conditioner noted. "I think we need to win the Breeders' Cup Classic."
While Moreno might face Wise Dan in the Woodward, it is almost certain he'll have to take on Palace Malice again in that contest.
Though still mystified following Palace Malice's disappointing effort as the 3-5 favorite in the Whitney, trainer Todd Pletcher said Sunday morning the Woodward would remain a target for the multiple Grade 1 winner.
Unbeaten in four 2014 starts to become a clear leader of the older horse division, the four-year-old son of Curlin finished sixth in the nine-horse Whitney, beaten 11 lengths by Moreno.
"It is a head-scratcher," Pletcher admitted. "Everything we've seen so far indicates that he came out of it well. He cooled out sound, he scoped clean, he ate up last night, his temperature is normal and he's sound this morning. We'll pull some bloodwork on him later in the week and see if that reveals anything. If that doesn't, I don't know what to do other than regroup and start training again."
Three of Palace Malice's four races this year had come at one mile, and he also won the New Orleans Handicap at 1 1/8 miles on March 29. He loomed a threat rounding the far turn under jockey John Velazquez but never got into contention as front-running Moreno pulled clear of the field in the stretch.
"We thought we would come away in a stalking-type position and we got to that point, but at the same time, as I was watching the race unfold, I never felt like he was taking Johnny anywhere," Pletcher explained. "At the top of the stretch when they snuck away, it was pretty obvious at that point (he wasn't going to win). I still felt like in the middle of the turn he started to make a little bit of an impact."
The Whitney marked the biggest margin of defeat for Palace Malice since he was 12th, beaten 13 1/2 lengths, in the 2013 Kentucky Derby. He came back a month later to capture the Belmont Stakes at 1 1/2 miles.
"Sometimes they throw in a dud, and right now it looks like that's what he did," Pletcher shrugged. "We'll have to continue to check him over and see, but right now we'll just try again."