ELMONT, N.Y. - The 145th Belmont Stakes was supposed to be about redemption. Specifically, Kentucky Derby winner Orb making amends for a fourth-place finish in the Preakness Stakes.
Well, it was redemption all right. But it was for Dogwood Stable's Palace Malice, who Saturday stalked a stern pace to beat gritty Preakness winner Oxbow by 3-1/4 lengths at Belmont Park. Orb finished another 1-3/4 lengths back in third as the only horse to significantly rally over a surface where speed was doing very well.
Palace Malice, with trainer Todd Pletcher adding blinkers to keep the colt from looking around, unexpectedly bolted to a sizzling pace in the Derby before tiring to 12th, 13 lengths behind Orb. Though there might not have been much he could have done that day, the Belmont proved a do-over for Mike Smith.
The victory was all the more satisfying because the Hall of Fame jockey was second in all three Triple Crown races last year with Bodemeister in the Derby and Preakness and Paynter in the Belmont.
"But today meant a lot to me," said Smith, who won his first Belmont in 2010 with Drosselmeyer. "Mr. (Cot) Campbell, Dogwood and Todd, just for having faith in me, believing in me and keeping me on. They certainly could have changed very easily after that Derby. It wasn't the prettiest of things.
"... Today we were running at a decent clip, but he was so relaxed and in a great rhythm. Down the backside, he'd prick his ears every now and then and just take a deep breath of air. I felt very confident he was going to run well. We just had to be good enough - and he was."
Palace Malice justified the high opinion Pletcher has had of the colt since last summer, when he considered the son of Curlin perhaps his best 2-year-old. Yet coming into the Belmont, Palace Malice had only a maiden victory on his record.
"He'd become a little bit frustrating because we've really felt like there was a big one in him," Pletcher said.
Before a crowd of 47,562, soaked in sunshine after Friday's deluge of rain, Frac Daddy tore to the lead as expected, with Freedom Child in pursuit. They rushed the first quarter-mile in 23.11 seconds and the half-mile in 46.66 before first Frac Daddy and then Freedom Child bowed out.
Gary Stevens had Oxbow in fourth early, but the colt had running on his mind and soon was second.
"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 really got any break. Mike rode a superb race. I got him settled going into the first turn for about five jumps. I believe it was Mike who came up and put just a tad of pressure on my colt to get him running."
Oxbow took the lead with a half-mile to go. But Smith had Palace Malice moving with him, the two in tandem around the far turn. Palace Malice took command rounding for home, but Oxbow did not capitulate easily.
"The horse has trained really impressively," Pletcher said, "and we felt if we could get in that rhythm and relaxed, it wouldn't necessarily matter if he was on the lead, fourth, fifth, wherever he was - as long as Mike had him in that big gallop he has."
Palace Malice finished 1-1/2 miles in 2:30.70, and was able to prevail with a final quarter-mile in 27.58 and the last half-mile in a staggering 54.23.
Meanwhile, Orb had only Derby runner-up Golden Soul beaten for the first half-mile. He was still ninth with a half-mile to go and fourth at the quarter-pole.
"Turning for home, he got a little tired," said jockey Joel Rosario.
Said trainer Shug McGaughey: "I'm disappointed in third. He might have gotten a little farther back than I thought he was going to. Maybe the grind of it all kind of made him do that. But he made a good run around the turn, he just didn't sustain it maybe as well as I'd like."
Palace Malice paid $29.60 as the seventh choice in the field of 14. He also was the third choice among Pletcher's record five horses, the others finishing fifth (Revolutionary), sixth (the filly Unlimited Budget), seventh (Overanalyze) and 12th (Midnight Taboo).
The Triple Crown concluded with each winner owned by racing luminaries. The Derby was the Phipps Stable and Stuart Janney III. Oxbow's Preakness honored fabled Calumet Farm. And Dogwood's 85-year-old founder Cot Campbell in the 1970s pioneered racing partnerships.
"It's the mother of all great moments," said Campbell, whose prior Triple Crown victory was the 1990 Preakness with Summer Squall.
Campbell was one of the first to send Pletcher horses when he opened his own stable in late 1995.
"This one is for Mr. Campbell," Pletcher said. "He gave me an opportunity when no one knew who I was."
Campbell said he just wanted "an absence of bad luck" in the Belmont.
In the Louisiana Derby, Palace Malice had nowhere to run, getting clear in midstretch when it was way too late and coming in seventh.
In order to be assured of getting in the Kentucky Derby, Palace Malice ran back two weeks later in Keeneland's Blue Grass, finishing second by a neck after jumping tire tracks. Hence the blinkers in the Derby.
Said Pletcher: "You live and learn, and it paid off today."
Palace Malice, a $200,000 Keeneland 2-year-old purchase last year, now is 2-3-1 in eight starts, earning $871,135 with the $600,000 payday.
The $1 million Triple Crown finale also proved a victory for Curlin, who lost the 2007 Belmont by a head to the Pletcher-trained filly Rags to Riches. Now, in his first crop as a stallion, Curlin has sired a classic winner.