It is hard to believe a year has passed since Dogwood Stable's Palace Malice galloped all the way around Big Sandy to upset the Belmont Stakes at odds of 13-1.
In the time that has passed, both Kentucky Derby winner Orb and Preakness Stakes winner Oxbow have been retired to stud. After each of their classic scores, they never won another race.
But Palace Malice keeps going strong, having collected four additional graded stakes wins for trainer Todd Pletcher since last June, including his most recent triumph -- a 9 ¾-length romp in the May 11 Westchester Stakes. He is the 8-5 favorite and 124-pound highweight for the one-mile Metropolitan Handicap June 7, a $1.25 million race that drew a field of 13 on the Belmont Day undercard at Belmont Park.
"He's training exceptionally well, he's really blossomed as a 4-year-old, which is something you'd hope a horse would do from 3 to 4 in terms of his physical development," Pletcher said. "It's great to have the opportunity to bring him back at 4; we've always thought he was a horse that would improve as he'd get older.
"It's rare to have a horse you feel is going to get better when they get older and develop when they stretch out in distance and still be as good as he was early on, so it's nice to have him back."
METROPOLITAN HANDICAP DRAW
After winning the Belmont, Palace Malice also took the Jim Dandy at Saratoga Race Course. He ran sixth in the Breeders' Cup Classic at the end of the year, but came back from a layoff in Aiken, S.C., to win three in a row. He opened his season when scoring by a head over Golden Ticket in the March 8 Gulfstream Park Handicap, then defeated fellow Met contender Normandy Invasion in the March 29 New Orleans Stakes by 4 ¾ lengths. Next it was another Met entrant, Declan's Warrior, who fell victim to the 4-year-old son of Curlin in the Westchester. Palace Malice leaves the rail under John Velazquez.
"It's concerning, especially when you consider we're also carrying the top weight," Pletcher said of the inside post. "At the same time, it is what it is, and, hopefully, he is good enough, seasoned enough, professional enough, and handy enough to overcome a less-than-ideal draw. I think he's adaptable to different pace scenarios. He can sit off a fast pace, he can prompt a slow pace. He's pretty dangerous from a number of strategies."
Normandy Invasion was making just his second start of the year for Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farms and trainer Chad Brown in the New Orleans Stakes, having aced an off-the-bench optional claimer Feb. 22 at Gulfstream Park. The 4-year-old son of Tapit took that one-turn mile event by 7 3/4 lengths in hand, making his first start since a fourth in last year's Kentucky Derby. He was supposed to run in the May 2 Alysheba Stakes at Churchill Downs, but developed a quarter crack that forced his connections to scratch him the day before the race. Javier Castellano rides from the 9 hole, and Normandy Invasion, who is still seeking his first graded stakes win, gets in with a 116-pound assignment.
Another veteran of last year's Triple Crown trail is Pick Six Racing's Vyjack, who won the Jerome and Gotham last season before faltering to 18th in the Kentucky Derby and eighth in the Belmont. After a similarly lackluster performance in the Haskell Invitational, he spent some time on the sidelines and returned for trainer Rudy Rodriguez with an April 27 allowance score going seven furlongs at Aqueduct Racetrack. Irad Ortiz Jr. rides the Into Mischief gelding, also carrying 116, from post 2.
Breeders' Cup Mile winner Goldencents is another still racing after the rigors of the Triple Crown trail. He took the Sham Stakes and Santa Anita Derby early in 2013, fizzled to 17th in the Kentucky Derby and ran fifth in the Preakness, and wound up redeeming himself at the end of the season with a 2 ¾-length Mile win.
Running for W. C. Racing and Doug O'Neill, Goldencents made a good effort at Belmont in his juvenile year, where he was second to eventual 2-year-old champion Shanghai Bobby in the Foxwoods Champagne Stakes. His only other start in New York, the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct Nov. 30, was a disappointing seventh as the 3-1 favorite. In his first start since then, Mike Smith gets the mount from post 4 as part of a 121-pound impost.
"He had a good series of works because there were no races for him," said Leandro Mora, assistant to O'Neill. "I believe he is good enough to compete with these guys, even though he has been away for quite a bit. He is a fast horse, but we figure he is not a sprinter. He is a miler, and that's what his distance is."
Several other Met Mile contenders have good credentials, including Grade 2 winner Moreno and the top four from the May 3 Churchill Downs Stakes -- winner Central Banker, runner-up and previous Grade 1 winner Shakin It Up, and multiple Grade 3 victors Clearly Now and Broadway Empire. Also coming out of the Churchill Downs is 2013 King's Bishop Stakes winner Capo Bastone, who was sixth in that recent event.
Grade 3 winner Romansh and longshot maiden winner Scarly Charly complete the field.
"It's typical of the Met Mile; there are a lot of good horses in there," Pletcher said. "There's a blend of speed and closers and sprinters and routers, and I think that's what makes the Met Mile such a good race every year."