Palace Malice taking in rarefied air

A long time ago, before the first Ford Model T ever rolled off the assembly line and racehorses ever broke from Clay Puett's electronic starting gate, Bowling Brook was the first to do it. In 1898, he won both the Belmont Stakes and the Metropolitan Handicap, or Met Mile, as it has become more commonly known.

In his last outing at Belmont Park, Palace Malice became the 10th horse in the history of the sport to complete the odd double. In Saturday's Whitney Stakes at Saratoga, he could begin encroaching on what his trainer Todd Pletcher describes as rarefied territory.

For racing, this has been the year of California Chrome and his occasionally boorish owners and of incendiary video and controversy, but by Saturday afternoon, 2014 could become the year of Palace Malice. By winning the $1.5 million Whitney -- he's the even-money favorite in the morning line -- Palace Malice would have an unimpeachable, unassailable claim as the best horse in the country. And he could be even more than that.

He could be a recrudescent talent, the sort of horse that just doesn't come along anymore in this age of specialization, a throwback to the days of Native Dancer, Gallant Man, Sword Dancer and Arts And Letters, who, yes, all won both the Belmont and the Met Mile.

What an odd coupling they are. At 1½ miles, the Belmont Stakes is the longest and most demanding major stakes race run on dirt. And the Met Mile is arguably the sport's most prestigious and significant sprint -- for traditionalists who still insist a mile is a sprint. Thinking of them jointly, side by side, recalls that old public service announcement supportive of space exploration that Bill Shoemaker and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did together. That's how unlike they are, the Belmont and the Met Mile, disparate and distinctive, a two-turn Test of Champions and a one-turn proving ground for sustained speed, yet together they make a singularly powerful argument that, as Pletcher eloquently put it, Palace Malice could be encroaching on rarefied territory.

Among those entered in the Whitney are Will Take Charge and Moreno, who both finished ahead of Palace Malice in the Travers Stakes. But that was last year, which could have been before the first Model T rolled off as far as Palace Malice is concerned. The horse he was then seems distant from the horse he has become. Last year, he was like a child who just couldn't resist the allure of mischief. It wasn't that he lacked intelligence or was slow to learn, Pletcher said. Palace Malice knew what to do but usually chose to do otherwise. He was childishly impish, immature, always searching for trouble and, if he found none, creating some of his own. It was as almost as if he thought the objective was to extricate himself, Houdini-like, from whatever trap, snare or mess he got himself into, and he was both democratic and versatile when it came to mess.

In the Louisiana Derby, Palace Malice made a bold and powerful move that might have taken him into the winner's circle -- if only there had been a clear path. Rushing headlong into a dead-end street, he had to be checked sharply, so he dropped from fourth to nowhere in an instant and finished seventh. Two weeks later, in the Blue Grass Stakes, he again rallied powerfully, this time through an opening, and seemed on his way to a victory when, in midstretch, he glimpsed the tracks left from the starting gate and, given his reaction, must have regarded them as either a danger or an excuse. Hard to say which, for he suddenly became -- what? -- curious, playful, wayward, frightened, tentative, all the above? Whatever, he abruptly switched strides, back to his left lead, and drifted, first out, then in and then across the wire as the runner-up.

He was a virtuoso of mischief last year, and the Kentucky Derby was his masterpiece. Racing in blinkers for the first time, he ran like a wild horse at Churchill Downs, beyond restraint and reason, to set some of the fastest early splits in the history of the race. Perhaps he heard the throng's cheering and felt the hurly-burly of the moment and maybe he was following his instinctive inner voice exhorting him to flee, but nothing was going to dissuade Palace Malice, neither jockey Mike Smith nor the inevitability of exhaustion, from hurtling through an opening half-mile in 45.33 seconds and three-quarters of a mile in 1:09.80. He led the startled opposition by more than three lengths, but there remained a half-mile to run. He finished 12th.

Whitney Handicap Draw

He was relentlessly resourceful. In the Travers, he stumbled at the start and fell far behind as if uninterested but then advanced strongly, circling the field in the second turn and charging down the lane to lose by less than a length. In the Breeders' Cup Classic, he missed the break, left the gate awkwardly and raced wide. There was no race he couldn't lose if he tried hard enough, but there were also moments when he teased everyone with what he could accomplish if he focused on winning, the three-length victory in the Belmont Stakes and the display of professionalism in the Jim Dandy as examples.

And so Pletcher and Cot Campbell's Dogwood Stable, which owns the colt, put all their chips on Palace Malice's conspicuous talent and on the assumption that even virtuosos of mischief grow up, and then they spun the wheel. The payoff is a colt encroaching on rarefied territory. He has won all four of his races this year, all graded stakes, including the nation's most prestigious sprint, by a total of more than 15 lengths. And throughout he has been professional. It's as if, having finally learned to appreciate his own accomplishments and success, he has put mischief behind him.

"He hasn't made any of the mistakes he was making last year," Pletcher said. "He's matured into a professional. And to have a horse that can win the Belmont and the Met Mile -- well, that's very unusual. He's moving into an elite category, and he seems to be getting better all the time."

The Met Mile was defining. Fast enough to be close to the lively pace, Palace Malice waited in traffic for running room and then shot through an opening between horses to assert his superiority. And he's a better horse, a more effective horse, Pletcher said, at the Whitney distance of 1⅛ miles. Palace Malice is, in fact, best, his trainer explained, at distances from 1⅛ to 1½ miles. But when pressed, he can beat the best horses in the country at a mile too.

After the Whitney, Palace Malice will be aimed at the Woodward Stakes, the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Breeders' Cup Classic, Pletcher said. It's a grandly ambitious plan, the sort of schedule that doesn't come along anymore in this age of circumspection. But it's a schedule appropriate for a horse that's encroaching on rarefied territory.