At the post position draw for Saturday's Grade I, $1.5 million Whitney Handicap, trainer Todd Pletcher reflected on some of Palace Malice's old immaturity, bouts that left the son of Curlin in futile battles outside his comfort zone.
The 4-year-old version of Palace Malice that Pletcher will lead over for Saturday's 11⁄8-mile test at Saratoga Race Course has yet to succumb to missteps, or find a scenario that doesn't suit him. To that end, Dogwood Stable's classic winner was deemed the even-money, morning-line favorite after drawing post No. 5 in a classy field of nine entered in the headline event of a card featuring five stakes.
Palace Malice seriously touted himself when he won the 2013 Belmont Stakes going 12 furlongs and followed that up with a victory in the Grade II Jim Dandy. However, the 2014 season has been one extended display of an extremely versatile horse coming into his own.
After ending his 3-year-old season with a sixth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic, the bay colt has gone 4-for-4 this year at distances from 1 mile to 11⁄8 miles, his most recent victory being a 1-length triumph in the Grade I Metropolitan Handicap where he overcame the No. 1 post to run down defending Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile winner Goldencents.
"As a 3-year-old we kept feeling like this is a very talented horse that has the ability to win some of these big races," Pletcher said during Wednesday's draw. "In the Louisiana Derby he had a nightmarish trip. In the Blue Grass he saw some tracks on the ground just before the finish line and lost his momentum.
"He made the mistake in the Travers, he simply didn't break well. And he missed the break again in the Breeders' Cup Classic. The biggest difference this year is he hasn't made those types of mistakes. We were worried about the Met Mile, drawing the one hole and carrying top weight, and he's just gotten more professional."
It was around this time last year when eventual 3-year-old champion male Will Take Charge came into his own. The tireless son of Unbridled's Song will face Palace Malice for the first time since both were in the Breeders' Cup Classic field and stands as the 4-1 second choice on the morning line.
Conditioned by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, Will Take Charge has proven form at Saratoga off his victory over fellow Whitney entrant Moreno in last year's Grade I Travers. The massive chestnut colt, who enters off a runner-up finish in the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs on June 14, will have to overcome the No. 1 post position — a particular challenge considering he has shown no affinity for being stuck down inside.
"I hate to have an upset stomach this early in the morning," Lukas said after the draw. "Not good. I never really have much luck on the rail in any big race. But I have no qualms about the fact that he likes it here."
Al Stall Jr. trainee Departing, third in the Stephen Foster last time out, was made the 6-1 third choice out of post No. 6 with Moreno likely to set the early fractions out of post No. 3.
"I'm going to tell you now: If you're in front of me, you went too fast," Eric Guillot, trainer of Moreno, joked.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.