Remember Palace Malice? That was the horse that set the suicidal Derby pace that sent all the speed horses out the back door. Well, two of those speed horses, Oxbow and Palace Malice, came back to win the Preakness and Belmont.
Palace Malice, sent off at 13-1 was 3 1/4 lengths in front of the tough Oxbow who was 1 3/4 lengths in front of Orb. The other 11 were spread out for days.
The half-mile fraction was the second fastest in race history to Secretariat's. The great horse, of course, kept running fast all the way to the wire in 1973. There were no great horses in this race. In fact, the two early speedsters, Freedom Child and Frac Daddy, collapsed to finish 13th and 14th.
Oxbow, incredibly, managed to hang around after being caught in that pace. His jockey Gary Stevens knew his horse was dead tired when they hit the stretch and thought he was going to be off the board. It says something about Oxbow and the horses chasing him that he was a clear second.
Palace Malice ran the mile and a half in a slow 2:30.70. Even with all the rain, the surface was rated fast a few races prior to the Belmont and the times got progressively faster on the card - until the Belmont.
The leader went the first 6 furlongs in 1:10.95. Palace Malice went the last 6 furlongs in approximately 1:18. They were all slowing down, some quicker than others.
Palace Malice had shown ability in each of his seven races, but something always went wrong - traffic, crazy fractions, jockey error. This time, it all went right and the son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin finally won the second race of his career.
It was the third Triple Crown win and second Belmont for trainer Todd Pletcher. Mike Smith, who led for 95 percent of the Triple Crown races last year and won none of them, got his second Belmont. And 85-year-old Cot Campbell, the inventor of high-end racing partnerships who formed Dogwood Stable in 1973, got the stable's second TC win 23 years after its first, Summer Squall's 1990 Preakness.
"It's the mother of all great moments," said Campbell, one of racing's great characters and story tellers. "I'll tell you that. I'm proud for Dogwood and for my great partners."
Campbell was certain the town of Aiken, S.C., where Dogwood is based would be having a serious celebration.
"I don't think it will accelerate my retirement," Campbell said. "God knows I've had the most wonderful life a human being could have and this is a great chapter in it. And so I'm not in any hurry to do anything but keep on doing what I'm doing. As I have said, I don't want to chase any rabbits I can't catch."
Pletcher threw five at the Derby and got nothing. Threw five more at the Belmont and got something big.
"It was an emotional win for me because of the Dogwood connection," Pletcher said. "They supported me from the very beginning."
It was the day after the classic 1989 Preakness duel between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer that a young Todd Pletcher went to work for D. Wayne Lukas, then America's dominant trainer. Now, Pletcher is what Lukas once was, even as D. Wayne is making a bit of a comeback at 77.
That it was the Lukas-trained Oxbow that Palace Malice passed was not lost on anybody. Lukas gave Pletcher a chance. So did Campbell.
"Mr. Campbell gave me an opportunity when no one knew who I was and I didn't have any horses," Pletcher said.
It was a jockey exacta of Smith, 47, and Stevens, 50, to end a Triple Crown that really didn't settle anything, other than that Oxbow has a big heart, Orb never ran back to that Derby and time between races is essential at the top of the sport.
"I'm so proud of this colt," Stevens said. "I thought I was dead midway down the backside. They were suicidal fractions and he never got any break . . . But I have ridden long enough to know that he was going to walk home the last quarter of a mile. Going into the far turn, I didn't think he would have hit the board."
Orb's trainer Shug McGaughey was puzzled. "He just ran OK," McGaughey said. "He made a good run around the turn, but we had given up so much."
Even without a Triple Crown on the line, there were 47,562 at Belmont Park. The players around the country bet more than $88 million on a sensational racing card where the biggest upset was the sun and a fast track for the Belmont. In the 21st century version of the Triple Crown, there really are no upsets on the track anymore, just racing reality.