A terrific winner of the June 7 Met Mile and unbeaten from four starts this year, Palace Malice will attempt to enhance his outstanding resume in Saturday's Grade 1, $1.5 million Whitney.The Todd Pletcher-trained colt will face a talented group of eight rivals in the 1 1/8-mile event at Saratoga, which serves as a "Win and You're In" race for the Breeders' Cup Classic.
"I think you certainly have to put the Whitney up there as one of the most coveted prizes in American racing," Pletcher said. "It's a historic race. It's the focal race for older horses at our most prestigious meet. It carries a lot of weight for championship honors. It's a race we hold in very high regard."
A four-year-old son of Curlin, Palace Malice earned his first stakes victory in last year's Belmont Stakes. Other highlights of his sophomore season included a win in the Jim Dandy at Saratoga and a runner-up in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, but Palace Malice had something to prove this season after concluding 2013 with a sixth in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
He's established himself as the front-runner for Horse of the Year honors.
"He really is (an iron horse)," Pletcher said of Palace Malice, who made 10 starts last year. "He's an uncomplicated horse. He's hearty, he stays in the feed tub, you can train him however you want. I think he actually thrives on action."
Palace Malice returned to the races this year with a hard-fought head decision in the March 8 Gulfstream Park H. and has performed spectacularly since then, registering a 113 BRIS Speed rating for his 4 3/4-length triumph in the New Orleans H. prior to a 9 3/4-length romp in the Westchester. The bay Kentucky-bred squared off against an all-star field at the tricky one-mile distance last time in the Metropolitan H. and showed his class in the final furlongs, driving to a one-length win over Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile hero Goldencents.
"We ran him back pretty quickly in New Orleans after his first start of the year," Pletcher said. "It was back in three weeks and we were concerned about that, and he actually ran enormous that day. I think he likes the action. We were worried about the Met Mile, drawing the one hole and carrying top weight, and he's just gotten more professional."
Owned by Dogwood Stables, Palace Malice will break from post No. 5 with regular rider John Velazquez and is listed as the even-money favorite on the morning line.
"Mr. (Cot) Campbell and Dogwood (Stable) have supported me for a long time and it's great to have a horse of this caliber for them," the trainer added.
Will Take Charge, last year's champion three-year-old male, will make his first start against Palace Malice this year and breaks from the innermost post position. The D. Wayne Lukas trainee finished in front of his rival three times from five starts last season, with each owning one win, and Will Take Charge's biggest career victory, the Travers at Saratoga, came at the expense of Saturday's favorite. A son of Unbridled's Song and out of the outstanding broodmare Take Charge Lady, Will Take Charge will be seeking his second stakes win of 2014.
"I hate to have an upset stomach this early in the morning," Lukas said about drawing the rail. "Not good. I never really have much luck on the rail in any big race, not really in (a race) of this magnitude."
After concluding 2013 with a head score over Game On Dude in the Clark H., the chestnut colt opened the year with a pair of respectable seconds against Grade 1 foes in the Donn H. and Santa Anita H. Will Take Charge returned to the winner's circle in the April 12 Oaklawn H. but took a step back in the May 2 Alysheba, checking in sixth. He rebounded from that disappointment with a rallying second in the June 14 Stephen Foster and will attempt to carry his momentum forward in the Whitney. Luis Saez, who was replaced by Gary Stevens in the last two starts, regains the mount.
Will Take Charge ran 11 times last year and will be making his sixth appearance of 2014.
"He's thrived on it," Lukas said when asked about the rigorous schedule. "He's done really well. It was last year when we saw a real change in him when he came up here. He got into the feed tub, he trained well. I think he has an affinity for this racetrack. You can say the same thing this year. I think he's put on weight since we last ran him.
"We're the champion until someone dethrones us. We're the champion, we earned it last year, we're not making apologies for anything. I really think it's wonderful that we decide (championships) on the racetrack, not in the press box, not by guys on television. We get them out there, we get them all on the track, we've got a wonderful field here. It's probably going to be the first of many through the fall. John Nerud told me years ago, 'Championships are always decided in the fall, never in the spring.'"
Will Take Charge is the early 4-1 second choice and shares 124-pound highweight duties with Palace Malice.
Itsmyluckyday will enter the Whiney on the upswing for conditioner Eddie Plesa Jr. Runner-up in last year's Preakness, the Lawyer Ron colt has reeled off three convincing stakes wins since returning from a nine-month layoff earlier this year with a fourth in the Gulfstream Park H., most recently posting a sharp 1 1/2-length tally in the July 6 Salvator Mile. He was flattered when the runner-up and third-place finishers, Bradester and Valid, came back to run one-two in reverse order in last Sunday's Monmouth Cup, and Itsmyluckyday earned his top Speed rating of the year last time (103).
The speedy colt retains the services of Paco Lopez and Itsmyluckyday is 12-1 on the morning line.
"I think the speed is on the inside of me, which is probably a good thing," Plesa said of drawing post 4. "I'm just real pleased with the way the horse is going, and I'm pleased to be able to come up there and see what we have. It's going to be his sternest test, no ifs, ands or buts about that, but he deserves an opportunity and he's training up to it great."
Departing is listed as the 6-1 third choice. A four-time stakes winner at age three, the War Front gelding came back this season with a nice win over allowance/optional claiming opponents at Churchill Downs on April 30. The Al Stall Jr. charge loomed large turning for home in the Stephen Foster before weakening slightly in the final furlongs, finishing two lengths back in third, but that tough effort could benefit him. Departing shows a nice series of works for his third start of 2014.
"It's almost the same training pattern as he did last year for the West Virginia Derby," Stall said of the gelding's preparations. "He flourished and won that race by almost 10 lengths. He's going to step into a tougher race than the West Virginia Derby. He seems to thrive up here, even though he has never run over the racetrack. We sure love the way he gets over it.
"We think he's a Grade 1 type of horse. The Stephen Foster was his second race in 8 1/2 months and his first race around two turns (this year). He went from just an allowance race into that race. I think he acquitted himself quite well. He had the lead between calls in the stretch, and he got a little heavy right there toward the end. It did knock him down, but I think it built him up a little bit. I think he's ready for a big race in his third off the layoff."
Moreno, who finished a nose second in last year's Travers, brings plenty of speed to the Whitney equation from post 2. The Ghostzapper gelding exits an encouraging effort for trainer Eric Guillot, finishing second in the July 5 Suburban, and will keep Junior Alvarado in the saddle. Moreno has been installed as the 10-1 co-fourth choice.
Romansh, winner of last year's Curlin at Saratoga via disqualification, is also 10-1 on the morning line. The Tom Albertrani trainee captured the Excelsior at Aqueduct earlier this season and recorded a good third to Palace Malice in the Met Mile two starts back. The four-year-old son of Bernardini will look to make amends for a fifth as the favorite in the Suburban last time.
Grade 2 hero Last Gunfighter, a seven-time stakes winner for Chad Brown, drew the far outside post with leading rider Javier Castellano and comes next on the morning line at 15-1. Rounding out the field at 20-1 are Golden Ticket, who dead-heated for the win in the 2012 Travers; and Suburban third-placer Prayer for Relief.