More questions than answers

Moreno led the Whitney Stakes throughout, and Palace Malice faded. And so while fans were tossing their expectations into the trash bin and putting their jaws back in place, Marylou Whitney, Saratoga's matriarch, stood there Saturday afternoon in the winner's circle with Eric Guillot, Saratoga's envoy of discomfiture. They had only their smiles in common.

But horse racing, the most democratic of sports, can do that; it can bring together the most unlikely association, such as Lord Derby and Willie Nelson before the 2004 Breeders' Cup or, in this case, a New York socialite and a Louisiana Cajun. The sport can also dispel assumptions, preconceptions and opinions in a moment, or in the time it takes a field of horses to run around the racetrack. Nobody's smarter or knows more about the game than the horses themselves. Or, as Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas is fond of pointing out, people have opinions, but horses have facts.

A giant, sun-blocking dirigible of a fact suddenly and shockingly appeared at the head of the Saratoga stretch: Palace Malice just didn't have it, not Saturday. The 3-5 favorite who had looked so powerful and overpowering in his four victories this year raced within striking distance down the backstretch and advanced four-wide in the second turn to move momentarily into second, but then he stalled, and then he faded, and then he finished sixth, 11 lengths behind the winner.

The Whitney, as it turned out, brought out the favorite's inner Bullwinkle. Palace Malice never showed any interest in running and was looking around, explained his jockey, John Velazquez, by saying the colt "just didn't run."

The upset won't score on the shock meter with Onion's defeat of Secretariat or Birdstone's of Smarty Jones, but it was indeed a case of horrible timing. With a victory, Palace Malice would have become the first horse in the history of the sport to win the Belmont Stakes, the Met Mile and the Whitney. He also would have secured his position as the leading older horse in the country and would have taken a clear lead in the race for Horse of the Year.

But as Palace Malice faded Saturday, that race intensified. California Chrome, with two of the Triple Crown's gems in his pocket, remains the front-runner, with Palace Malice, despite his poor showing Saturday, close behind. Suddenly the chances of several others seem possible, if only remotely plausible -- horses such as Shared Belief, Bayern, Tonalist, Will Take Charge and, of course, the perennial candidate, Game On Dude. And Wise Dan, the two-time Horse of the Year, reportedly had a good workout Saturday (1:02.4) in preparation for his comeback. He could return to competition later this month, in either the Bernard Baruch or the Woodward at Saratoga. Might he possibly claim a third golden Eclipse Award? Could Moreno even jump into the picture?

He looked like a candidate Saturday, even though the Whitney became his first victory in more than a year. But was it possibly a breakthrough victory for a horse that, despite his conspicuous talent, had finished second six times in his career?

Moreno shot to an unchallenged lead and took the field through a reasonable opening half-mile in 47.50 seconds and three-quarters of a mile in 1:11.31. Then he charged home by running the final three furlongs in 36.74 seconds to win by more than a length over Itsmyluckyday, with Will Take Charge third. Moreno completed the 1 ⅛ miles in a solid 1:48.05. It was only the third victory of his career and his first since last year's Dwyer Stakes.

A year ago, after Moreno lost the Travers in the last stride by a nose, Guillot suggested the winner, Will Take Charge, had run as if electrified. The allegation that jockey Luis Saez had employed an electrical device to encourage the winner, was, to anybody who viewed the race closely, pure flapdoodle. But it led to an investigation and considerable discomfiture.

And so Saturday, after one of the most prestigious races in the country, there in the winner's circle at Saratoga were the gracious matriarch and the raging Cajun. Too bad there wasn't time for lessons in decorum.