Commentary

Age before beauty in Triple Crown

Experience came through in the Belmont just as it did in the Derby and Preakness

Updated: June 10, 2013, 12:38 AM ET
By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

He just rolled along, inexorable as history, through the lively fractions, down the Belmont Park stretch and into the victorious comfort of the carnation blanket. And with Palace Malice's victory in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, a Triple Crown that asserted the primacy of history concluded.

Again, there was no Triple Crown winner, but for anybody who loves racing or who can admire dedication, there was a deeply satisfying consolation. The three races that comprise the most famous series not played with a ball -- the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont -- were won, yes, by three different horses, but won nonetheless by three versions of the same approach to the game: They were won by patience, experience and perseverance.

This was no country for young men, or, for that matter, inexperienced horsemen. This was no place for upstarts or parvenus or expedience. Any Johnny arriving lately could take his shortcuts and his cynicism and his Weltschmerz elsewhere. This was a Triple Crown that rewarded dues paid.

And so in the winner's circle Saturday at Belmont Park there was 85-year-old W. Cothran "Cot" Campbell, president of Dogwood Stable, which owns Palace Malice. Yes, there he was, a grandfather of six and a pioneer of the horse-owning partnerships that have become so popular, caught in the middle of what he would later describe as a "great chapter" in a "most wonderful life," deflecting plaudits by saying it's all about "the horse, the horse, the horse." For people such as Campbell and Hall of Fame trainers Claude "Shug" McGaughey and D. Wayne Lukas, it's always about the horse. McGaughey, 62, won the Derby, of course, with Orb, who ran third Saturday; and Lukas, 77, won the Preakness with Oxbow, who ran second at Belmont.

Before Saturday, Palace Malice seemed to be one of those horses that could never outrun bad luck or compromising circumstances.

Campbell, whose grandfather was an original member in the 19th century of the New Orleans Jockey Club, has been putting together Thoroughbred partnerships since 1969. His Dogwood group owned Summer Squall, the winner of the 1990 Preakness, and Storm Song, the 1996 champion juvenile filly. But on Saturday, Palace Malice wrote the latest, and possibly greatest, chapter.

And if his Belmont victory was indeed the greatest chapter, it's because his performance was the culmination of experience and patience and perseverance. Before Saturday, Palace Malice seemed to be one of those horses that could never outrun bad luck or compromising circumstances. In the Louisiana Derby, he was making a bold move along the rail when suddenly a door rudely closed, blowing out his momentum like a candle. He finished seventh. In the Blue Grass Stakes, Palace Malice appeared to be the winner when, in mid-stretch, he spotted the tire tracks left by the starting gate. He balked, switched strides and again an irresistible and circumstantial wind snuffed out his momentum. He finished second. In the Kentucky Derby, racing in blinkers for the first time, he heard the thunder of the large field and perhaps the clamor of the crowd, and he responded with his hereditary instincts and simply ran as fast as he could, taking the field through suicidal fractions, 45.33 seconds for the opening half-mile and 1:09.80 for three-quarters over the sloppy track, before faltering and finishing 12th.

And so Saturday, his trainer, Todd Pletcher, said he was hoping only for "an absence of bad luck." Palace Malice, Pletcher knew, had within him the talent to win a major race and to give a superlative performance.

In the Belmont, Palace Malice didn't get stopped, didn't shy away from any minatory intrusion, didn't run wild. Although the pace, set by Frac Daddy and Freedom Child, was lively Saturday -- 46.66 for the opening half-mile and 1:10.95 -- Palace Malice fell into a comfortable rhythm, explained his 47-year-old jockey, Mike Smith. When the early leaders faltered, Oxbow, ridden by 50-year-old Gary Stevens, inherited the lead. But Palace Malice kept coming.

When Palace Malice, who appeared to be moving the better of the two, drew alongside, Stevens said, "Go on, little brother," as Smith recalled the moment. And Smith, who last year rode the runner-up in each of the three Triple Crown races, went on indeed. Orb attempted to rally, but the 1½ miles of the Belmont can transform determination into velleity. And the Belmont was down to two, with Palace Malice drawing clear late to win by more than three lengths as history, patience, experience and perseverance all rolled together toward the culmination of the Triple Crown.