King of the Palace

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Mike Smith danced through the crowd after the Jim Dandy. Already late for a plane, the California-based jockey signed autographs on the fly, posed for pictures while trying to keep moving and then stopped.

“He’s a different horse now,” Smith said. “That was a 24 first quarter and he sat off it. I was well within myself, he was very comfortable, could have went faster if need be, could have went slower if I had to.”

Amazing what three months will do.

After running off and fading in the Kentucky Derby, Palace Malice produced his second consecutive stakes win, securing the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Saturday. Owned by Dogwood Stable and trained by Todd Pletcher, the 3-year-old Curlin colt upset the Belmont Stakes in June.

Making his first start since the Belmont, Palace Malice replicated that effort, combining tactical speed and tractability to win another big 3-year-old stakes.

As expected, Moreno broke sharply and cleared Will Take Charge, Code West and Bashaar to his inside. To his outside, Smith nudged Palace Malice for a few strides, then hit pause, finding the sweet spot, a length off the leader, outside, clear. To his outside, Luis Saez eased Freedom Child into third. In a matter of strides, the pacesetters fell into order like shelled peanuts on a pickup floor.

Moreno led through an easy first quarter mile in :24.06. Palace Malice melted into a perfect spot, outside in second as Freedom Child rated off the two leaders. Smith loved it.

“Trip wise, it really was perfect,” Smith said. “I broke, I looked to my right, right away, and saw that I got the jump on the outside horse, knew the inside horse was committed and I was able to set my own pace.”

Straightening down the backside, Palace Malice swapped to his right lead and clenched.

“Coming out of the turn, he jumped on it, thinking it was time to break off and go,” Smith said. “It took a little coaxing and I talked him out of it. Then, he was great.”

Like pushing buttons on his home remote, Smith settled Palace Malice for another quarter mile before moving to Moreno after three quarters in 1:11.13. Moreno dug in but Palace Malice ranged up on his outside with ease. Palace Malice collared Moreno nearing the eighth pole and opened up a clear lead as Will Take Charge separated from the plodders.

Smith threw two double crosses, both hands reaching for a new hold, pulled his whip through to his left hand, flicked the favorite twice, then turned his whip down and hand rode him to the finish, one eye on the wire and one eye on a tepid rally from Will Take Charge, who was making up ground, but certainly not enough. Palace Malice secured a length win over Will Take Charge as Moreno held third, five lengths clear of Bashaar.

Palace Malice finished 9 furlongs in a quick 1:47.37.

Pletcher, watching from his customary spot in the box seats, stood up, hugged his wife Tracy and walked to the winner’s circle, a sixth Jim Dandy checked off with precision.

“I loved the setup,” Pletcher said. “I wanted him to get into a comfortable rhythm, when Freedom Child didn’t lap on him, I was pretty happy. I couldn’t have drawn it up any better.”

It took a while, but Pletcher and Smith have been able to draw up and execute two perfect game plans for Palace Malice. After squandering opportunities in three consecutive Kentucky Derby preps ­and blowing the Derby with runaway speed, Palace Malice has arrived. He upset the Belmont with a professional effort, sitting just off the pace and staying the trip to win his second career race. Two months later, he returned with another facile performance, securing the Jim Dandy and booking a ticket to the Travers in a month.

You can’t win the Jim Dandy without thinking about the Travers. Pletcher has been here before, analyzing the performances of Graeme Hall, Strong Hope, Purge, Flower Alley and Stay Thirsty and wondering how they would come back in a month. Some he worried about, some he wrote off and some convinced him to march confidently forward. Palace Malice would definitely be in the latter category.

“Now that he’s shown he can take those races, and the training, if he has a tough race in the Jim Dandy, it’s not going to worry me,” Pletcher said, the day before the Jim Dandy. “Purge, for example, it was like, ‘Oh, no. He ran too good today.’ He was light and nervous. Stay Thirsty, actually, he ran a faster race in the Jim Dandy. He ran a more courageous race in the Travers. Flower Alley, keep him where he is and he’s going to be pretty nasty in the Travers.”

As for Palace Malice, he checks a lot of Travers’ boxes.

“He’s a good moving horse, strong horse, been a sound horse, high-cruising speed and the ability to carry it over a distance of ground, it’s what makes any of them good,” Pletcher said. “Then you have to have some luck to go along with it and some guts.”

Palace Malice has gradually righted his career. Dogwood’s Cot Campbell purchased the athletic colt for $200,000 at Keeneland’s 2-year-olds in training sale last April. He didn’t miss a beat, making his debut at Belmont Park in July. A mother later, he broke his maiden at Saratoga. He failed to run again until reappearing at Gulfstream Park in January, finishing second as the favorite in a 7-furlong allowance. Shipped to Fair Grounds, he was beaten a half-length while third in the Risen Star. Five weeks later, he found trouble quicker than Leroy Brown, finishing a troubled seventh in the Louisiana Derby. In need of points, he ran back in two weeks and lost the Blue Grass in the final strides. That placing gave him enough points for the Kentucky Derby.

Pletcher added blinkers, Palace Malice ignited and scorched through three quarters in 1:09.80. The fractions took their toll, Smith folded up on him late, he wound up 12th.

“I was sick when I saw the fractions,” Campbell said. “You can’t do that and be around at the end, it was exhilarating, but little more than that. Every race up to then he had been kind and rated well, it was clearly the blinkers. It was a muddy track and he heard all that noise smacking behind him, it scared him and he took off like a scalded dog.”

Pletcher and Campbell reconvened at the barn afterwards. They tacitly blamed the blinkers and worried they had fried a nice horse.

Palace Malice was anything but fried.

“Any time you run a horse in the Derby, you always worry about how quick they’re going to bounce out of it,” Pletcher said. “We’ve run a lot of them over the years, you get them back and you’re like, ‘Wow, this horse is really gutted.’ You know you’re not going to be running him back anytime soon. In his case, he bounced out of it good. Of all the horses we ran, if you were going to run one back in the Preakness, he would have been the one. We could have run him back if we wanted to.”

Campbell and Pletcher never considered the Preakness and put the Belmont on the back burner. Palace Malice, licking his tub and training like a soldier, moved it to the front. Palace Malice kept eating, kept training, kept moving forward, delivering his career best work 12 days before the Belmont.

“You could almost argue that the Derby was something that moved him forward,” Pletcher said. “That he went to the well and moved forward.”

The Belmont wasn’t pretty but Palace Malice had at least erased his Derby debacle and secured a classic. Pletcher and Campbell marched forward and aimed at the Jim Dandy.

Doing so well, Palace Malice worked earlier than what Pletcher had planned and rolled into the Jim Dandy as a fresh, fit and fast horse ready to make up for what he squandered in the spring.

Smith, aboard for his last three races, thinks the well is far from dry.

“Believe it or not, but I think this colt is still growing. He was better than the Belmont this time, the last sixteenth of a mile, he was well within himself,” Smith said. “He was still pricking his ears, as soon as he felt the other horse, he jumped right back on it, he’ll be one to reckon with, if he continues to run the way he’s running and if he grows.”