by Tom Pedulla
The New York Racing Association is presenting a weekly series of diaries to help celebrate the 150th Belmont Stakes on June 9 at Belmont Park. “In Their Own Words” will feature prominent owners, trainers and jockeys as they re-live some of the most stirring moments in the rich history of the “Test of the Champion.”
The series opened with trainer Todd Pletcher taking readers behind the scenes to understand the bold decision to enter Rags to Riches in the 2007 Belmont and his emotions during the scintillating stretch duel with Curlin. Rags to Riches joined Ruthless (1867) and Tanya (1905) as the only fillies to win the marathon.
The second diary is from Cot Campbell, an innovator in creating racing partnerships. He remembers “the mother of all great moments” for him, when Palace Malice rebounded from a disastrous Kentucky Derby to win the Belmont in 2013.
Future diaries will feature:
Here is the second installment:
Palace Malice Provides the “Mother of all Great Moments”
By Cot Campbell with Tom Pedulla
I could not help but feel some trepidation as my wife, Anne, and I settled into our box at Belmont Park to watch Palace Malice compete in the 2013 Belmont Stakes.
I could not get out of my mind our sickening experience in the Kentucky Derby. Todd Pletcher, our trainer, decided to equip him with blinkers for the first time in the Derby after he jumped some tire tracks during the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. The move made all the sense in the world and I was on board with it.
But the combination of a big crowd, blinkers and a sloppy track could not have been worse. The gate popped open and Palace Malice was gone. Jockey Mike Smith was forced to decide whether he should fight with the colt in an effort to restrain him. He decided it would be better to let him roll -- and he certainly did roll.
He tore through the opening half-mile in 45 1/5 seconds and was still smoking after three-quarters of a mile in 1:09 4/5 seconds. It was the worst feeling in the world to watch him because I knew he could not possibly be around at the end of a mile and a quarter. As it is, guts alone allowed him to finish 12th.
We immediately set our sights on the Belmont. He was sired by two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, so we always had the Belmont in mind. He showed every sign of wanting distance. Smith called me and asked for a second chance. He is a great rider and what could I say? I gave it to him.
As discouraging as the Derby had been, every report from Todd leading into the Belmont was extremely encouraging. He kept telling me the horse had never been doing better. When he says that, you pay attention because he does not say anything lightly.
Todd is as serious as they come, and I always enjoyed a good relationship with him. He comes from a good school, the D. Wayne Lukas school. I started Dogwood Stable, initiating the concept of racing partnerships, and I was happy to give Todd some of his first horses in behalf of Dogwood when he struck out on his own in 1996.
Todd took the blinkers off Palace Malice for the Belmont and drilled the colt four furlongs in 47.40 seconds in his last tuneup for the race. He would later call it one of the best works he had ever seen.
Everything said the horse was at the top of his game. But would he be too keen again?
He broke well and, even though he was carried wide in fifth around the first turn, I could see he was responding to what Mike wanted. When they hit the backstretch, Palace Malice settled into a nice, easy stride that he looked like he could sustain forever. He was sitting in the catbird’s seat.
Mike asked him to gradually pick up the pace and he collared Oxbow, the Preakness winner, and Gary Stevens midway around the final turn. Mike and Gary go back a long way and are close. Mike would later say that Gary shouted to him, “You’ve got the horse little brother. Go on with it.”
Orb, the Kentucky Derby winner, made a big move from the back of the pack. But I could tell he had too much to do as long as Palace Malice possessed the heart and stamina we thought he did.
I am a screamer. I was yelling like hell. “Come on Mike! All the way, baby!”
When Mike asked him Palace Malice the question at the top of the stretch, he responded in a big way. He had put away Oxbow. Orb was no threat.
At 85 years old, in the twilight of a career that I would not change for anything, I was about to win the Belmont! I hugged Anne and we hurried to the track.
There were waves of applause as I led Palace Malice into the winner’s circle at the end of a race that I always prized because of the many ways it tests a 3-year-old. It was like being part of a dream, a wonderful dream you never want to end.
I would later describe it as “the mother of all great moments,” and it was. I sent Todd a letter to tell him how much the experience meant to me. He replied with a very warm letter expressing his gratitude to me for believing in him from the start.
Winning the Belmont means everything to me. The sense of accomplishment, knowing you are forever part of history, never leaves you.
It’s like throwing a stone into a pool. The ripples keep coming for the rest of your life.
NYRA Press Office