During the morning hours when the foundation for race day is laid, Palace Malice is often the one pushing his accomplished stablemates to step up their game.
When he and juvenile champion Shanghai Bobby drilled 5 furlongs in company last Sunday in advance of their respective prep races, Palace Malice was regarded as the more visually impressive. In a previous morning pairing with now-retired Grade I winner Violence last month, trainer Todd Pletcher said he needed more than his naked eye to separate the two at the wire.
Saturday marks Palace Malice's latest chance to stand out when it counts.
With his graded stakes-winning stablemate Revolutionary slated to be next to him in the starting gate, Palace Malice could earn a start in the Kentucky Derby should he prevail in Saturday's Grade II, $1 million Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds.
The 11⁄8-mile Louisiana Derby is one of three Kentucky Derby preps this weekend offering a total of 170 points on the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" system that determines the field for the first leg of the Triple Crown. Each awards 100 points for first place, 40 for second, 20 for third and 10 for fourth.
If Revolutionary, Shanghai Bobby and the brilliant Verrazano have been Pletcher's more obvious Kentucky Derby prospects, Palace Malice has been part of the second tier trying to earn varsity status.
His rallying third-place finish in the Grade II Risen Star last month, where he was beaten just a half-length by upset winner Ive Struck a Nerve in his first two-turn try, suggests further progression is possible. Strong as Palace Malice has been at sprint distances, Saturday's race offers a distance his efficient style suggests he should relish.
"He's done really good since his last race, and this work on Sunday (with Shanghai Bobby) was a knockout," Cot Campbell, president of Dogwood Stable, which owns Palace Malice, said during a teleconference. "Todd is not one to gush as we all know, and I've never known him to be more enthusiastic than he was about the work.
"He's always been a horse that indicated he wanted to go a route, and so we're hoping with that mile and a sixteenth under his belt, he'll be salty going a mile and an eighth."
Neither his sire Curlin nor his dam sire Royal Anthem got their careers off the ground until their 3-year-old seasons. In that respect, Palace Malice came around quicker than his bloodlines dictate as he made his career debut running second at Belmont last July and broke his maiden going 61/2 furlongs at Saratoga in August.
In his 2013 debut going 7 furlongs, Palace Malice caught a sealed, sloppy track at Gulfstream Park and finished second to Majestic Hussar. With consistency down pat, Campbell believes the bay colt has the mettle needed to start producing repeated victories.
"I do think he (knows how to win). I think there's been some reasons he hasn't," Campbell said. "He's intelligent, he's a confident kind of horse. He understands the game, and we're hoping ... he doesn't have to overcome some adversity (Saturday)."
Palace Malice drew post No. 2 in the 14-horse field for the Louisiana Derby and will have morning-line favorite Revolutionary to his outside in post No. 3.
After having leading Fair Grounds rider Rosie Napravnik at the helm for the Risen Star, Palace Malice will have a new jockey for the Louisiana Derby in Hall of Famer Edgar Prado. Napravnik will ride Shanghai Bobby in Saturday's Florida Derby.
Losing Napravnik's services to his champion stablemate was not a shock in Palace Malice's camp. It is, after all, now up to the colt to overtake others when there is hardware on the line instead of a stopwatch in hand.
"I'd say he's improving, but he's always trained really well," Pletcher said last weekend. "We've had really high hopes for him."
When: 6:44 p.m. Saturday
Where: Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans, La.
Distance: 11⁄8 miles Grade: II
Purse: $1 million
TV: NBC Sports
Favorite: Revolutionary (3-1)
Derby points: 100 to winner, 40 for second, 20 for third, 10 for fourth.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.