There is no disputing Palace Malice and Will Take Charge as the most accomplished runners in Saturday's nine-horse lineup for the $1.5 million Whitney Handicap. The former being the multiple Grade I-winning, morning-line favorite. The latter, the reigning divisional champion.
They haven't met since each was in the field for last November's Breeders' Cup Classic, and every expectation has both coming back for this year's $5 million race.
In the ever-fluctuating handicap division, they have been two of the more steady presences. They have also become ambassadors against the rush to judgment often levied against each year's 3-year-old group of Thoroughbreds.
While the collective strength or weakness of a 3-year-old crop is often debated during Triple Crown season each year, Saturday's Grade I Whitney at Saratoga Race Course is a showcase for why such conclusions cannot truly be reached until well after the fact.
Six of the nine entrants in the 11⁄8-mile race were 3-year-olds in 2013, highlighted by the enduring exploits of last year's Belmont Stakes hero, Palace Malice, along with Will Take Charge, whose second-half surge 12 months ago earned him the Eclipse Award for champion 3-year-old male.
Both colts have done complete 180s since each finished off the board in the 2013 Kentucky Derby.
Palace Malice, who ran that day with blinkers for the first time and ended up fading to 12th, has been off the board only twice in nine starts since and is unbeaten in four outings this year.
Once a magnet for poor racing luck, the son of Curlin has become the consummate professional — no more so than during his victory in the Grade I Met Mile at Belmont Park on June 7 when he overcame the inside post to cement himself as tops in the handicap ranks.
"I think right now he'd be a strong candidate to be Horse of the Year," said Cot Campbell of Dogwood Stable, which owns Palace Malice. "During the winter, we gave him two months in Aiken (S.C.) after (finishing sixth in) the Breeders' Cup last year, and I think he really flourished after that.
"We've had plenty of nice horses, but none that could come up to this horse. I mean, he is a serious, serious racehorse and he'd be the most exciting one we've had."
That Will Take Charge became the first horse to take champion 3-year-old honors after finishing off the board in all three Triple Crown races speaks to changes the chestnut son of Unbridled's Song has undergone.
The winner of last year's Grade I Travers and Clark Handicap and runner-up by an eyelash to Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Will Take Charge reeled off eight straight starts at one point where he was not worse than second. That streak was broken when he finished sixth in the Grade II Alysheba Stakes on May 2, an effort that saw the 17-plus hand colt stuck down inside under jockey Gary Stevens.
Will Take Charge rebounded with a runner-up finish in the Grade I Stephen Foster on June 14 and — with Stevens recently undergoing knee surgery — will be reunited in the Whitney with jockey Luis Saez, who rode him in those eight starts prior to the Alysheba.
Saez's familiarity will be needed Saturday as Will Take Charge has to break from the No. 1 post position.
"I just think he got back too far (in the Stephen Foster)," said Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, who conditions Will Take Charge. "He likes Saratoga and he runs well there. I think he is really doing well. He's putting on weight, becoming a more mature, stud-looking type horse.
"His legacy is pretty well established but we need to put the icing on the cake. We're the champion until someone dethrones us."
Itsmyluckyday, winner of the 2013 Grade III Holy Bull Stakes, has quietly been carving out his own path of success in his 4-year-old season. The son of Lawyer Ron is stepping into Grade I company for the first time since finishing second in the 2013 Preakness Stakes and comes into the Whitney with a three-race win streak punctuated by a triumph in the Grade III Salvator Mile at Monmouth Park on July 6.
"I'm pleased to be able to ... see what we have," said trainer Eddie Plesa. "It's going to be his sternest test, no ifs, ands or buts, but he deserves an opportunity."
Moreno, second to Will Take Charge in last year's Travers and Pennsylvania Derby, figures to be the main speed as he seeks to halt an eight-race losing skid. Multiple graded stakes winner Departing, sixth in last year's Preakness, is seeking his first score against top-level company.
"We've got a wonderful field here. It's probably going to be the first of many (meetings) through the fall," Lukas said. "(Hall of Fame trainer) John Nerud told me years ago, 'Championships are always decided in the fall, never in the spring.'"
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.