ELMONT, N.Y. As Palace Malice began to move easily, powerfully at the three-eighths pole, Gary Stevens, aboard Preakness champion Oxbow, saw Mike Smith. More than that, Stevens saw Smith with way too much horse.
"When I got next to Gary, it was like a movie scene," Smith said after Palace Malice won the 145th Belmont Stakes by 31/4 lengths on Saturday. "He looked over at me. I could see his face clear as day. He says, 'Go on with it, little brother. You're moving better than me.'"
"I felt really confident. I knew one of the closers would have had to run the race of a lifetime to get by me."
The colts may only be 3, but Stevens is 50, Smith is 47 and between the two grizzled racing greats, they knew what was happening. They know the pace had been too sizzling — only 2/5th of a second slower through a half-mile than Secretariat 40 years ago — for Oxbow, who had capitalized on the slow Preakness pace, to carry through 11/2 miles.
We all would come to understand, too, that the top finishers in this year's Kentucky Derby had been given too much love, too much hype in the glory of the roses. Orb won in Louisville and if you had listened to the experts you would have thought he was an all-time great. Orb isn't. The pace of the Derby was so fast that the leaders were burnt, left drowning in the rainy soup at Churchill Downs. And the closers were able to, well, close like champions. In the big picture of Triple Crown immortality, it would prove to be a mirage.
The final fractions Saturday were dreadful and Palace Malice won it in a slow 2:30.7 on a fast track that had dried after Friday's torrential rains. Orb had his chance again. He didn't have it.
Palace Malice had won only one of his first seven races, a maiden race, and some will see trainer Todd Pletcher as being vindicated for sticking with the horse. But this victory also made sense. (Courant horse-race writer Bob Clancy picked the winner). The son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin out of a mare by grass specialist Royal Anthem, Palace Malice is bred splendidly for distance. And this was the longest race these horses ever will run. On top of that, Palace Malice had a terrific final workout, 47.40 over four furlongs last Sunday.
"I kept saying I felt like he had a big one in him," Pletcher said.
Asked what the difference was from the Derby, meanwhile, Smith didn't blink: "Taking the blinkers off made all the difference."
In an attempt to focus the horse in the Derby, Pletcher used blinkers, but Palace Malice had gone out at far too silly a pace for his own good.
"I probably over-thought the Derby," Pletcher said. "Live and learn."
This time, Smith said, all went according to plan. Lay on the outside of Oxbow and make his decisive move when the time was right. At the 16th pole, Pletcher joked, he saw that Palace Malice had a real good chance and he metaphorically jumped aboard the horse to help Smith bring it home. Although it was a keenly run first part of the race, Pletcher said, Smith was able to get Palace Malice into a comfortable rhythm.
"He just enjoyed the trip, sucking all the air in and full of run heading for home," said Smith scoring his second Belmont victory. "I think Gary Stevens put it best [about the Belmont]: It's like the ocean out there. You can get lost in it if you don't know it. These are my waters. I know where the fish are. Experience and a talented horse can get you a lot of places."
Experience also told Pletcher not to bring Palace Malice back in two weeks for the Preakness after the Derby. He hoped the break would bring his horse forward. It did. Which brings us to a vital point: As cool as it was to see octogenarian owner Cot Campbell of Dogwood Stables score only his second Triple Crown victory. (He won with Summer Squall in the 1990 Preakness.). As cool as it was to hear Pletcher, who has gone on to become the nation's premier trainer, to be so effusive in thanking Campbell for giving him a chance several years ago. A hard, much less romantic truth continued to emerge. This was the seventh horse since 2000 to run in the Derby, skip Baltimore and then win the Belmont.
Winning the Derby and the Belmont in the same year has proven nearly as difficult as winning the Triple Crown itself and that's disturbing. Since Affirmed last won the Triple Crown in 1978, 12 horses have won the Derby and Preakness only to fail to get the job done in what has been called the Test of Champions. In fact, it has happened eight times since 1997.
Five horses have won the Preakness and Belmont since Affirmed, with Point Given doing it in 2001 after finishing an inexplicable fifth at the Derby and Afleet Alex doing it in 2005 after a third at Churchill Downs.
Yet no horse has won the bookend races since Thunder Gulch in 1995. And only Swale, in 1984, has won the Derby and Belmont since Affirmed.
Some people rejoice in the ridiculous difficulty of winning the Triple Crown. With a 45-year-old drought, I gave up rejoicing a number of years ago. Only Orb, Oxbow and Will Take Charge even ran all three legs this year, with seven Derby entrants jumping back in after taking the Preakness off. Since 2003, Afleet Alex is the only winner at Belmont who has raced in all three legs.
Thoroughbreds are bred for speed and muscle now. Greed has affected the genetics. As Tim Layden, the brilliant writer from Sports Illustrated, pointed out, "The modern thoroughbred is bred to strut through a yearling sales ring like a model on a runway, or to sprint a furlong in nine seconds flat at a two-year-old sale, not to complete three grueling, classic races in five weeks or to win the Belmont Stakes at 1½ miles." There's the matter of Lasix and all the therapeutic drugs, too.
Not to take anything away from Palace Malice — the Travers and other upcoming races will tell us who the Three Year Old of the Year is — but the Belmont has been producing some less than legendary winners in the past 15 years.
No major race has brought so many longshot winners. Sarava at 70-1, Da' Tara at 39-1, heck at 13-1, Palace Malice felt like the chalk. As Bill Finley of ESPN.com pointed out since 2000, Commendable (2000), Sarava (2002), Jazil (2006), Da' Tara (2008) and Ruler On Ice (2011) did more than paid $39.60, $142.50, $14.20, $79 and $51.50 on a $2 bet. Those five winners have been a combined 1-for-39 after the Belmont, with only one allowance win by Ruler On Ice. Many of these Belmont winners aren't the Lakers, Yankees and Patriots. The Columbus Blue Jackets win the Belmont now. The Washington Wizards win the Belmont.
That's why you can't blame Pletcher one bit for entering five horses — 35.7 percent of the 14-horse field on Saturday. With only nine horses in the Preakness, yet 10 running in both the Derby and Belmont this year, it's clear this grueling five-week run is too grueling for the breed. Maybe we all should take the blinkers off to that fact.