08/03/2014 10:56AM

Watchmaker: Palace Malice the big story out of Whitney Stakes

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It’s a fact of racing life that sometimes the big story coming out of a race is as much who lost as who won, and that was the case in the biggest race of the day Saturday, Saratoga’s Grade 1 Whitney Stakes.

With victories in the Met Mile and the Westchester, the New Orleans, and the Gulfstream Park handicaps, Palace Malice went into the Whitney as arguably the best horse in America so far this year and as the imposing 3-5 favorite. (I said best horse, not most accomplished horse. There is a difference between the two). Palace Malice was returning to the track over which he won the Jim Dandy and was best when fourth in the Travers last summer and on which he recorded his maiden win at 2. By all accounts, he trained great for the Whitney and was making a stretch out in distance from the eight furlongs of the Met Mile to nine furlongs that, as the winner of last year’s Belmont Stakes at 12 furlongs, he figured only to relish.

No doubt, it is because Palace Malice had all of those things in his favor that his uncompetitive sixth-place finish was such as surprise. Palace Malice held a perfect early striking position, but for reasons that remain a mystery, he just came up completely empty. It was a reminder that these horses are, after all, flesh and blood, not machines. But it also provided a renewed appreciation for horses like Wise Dan and Zenyatta, who were/are amazingly able to maintain their form at a high level for an extended period of time.

As for the Whitney upsetter Moreno, he had been threatening to do something like this for quite some time, which is why a small group of horseplayers (yours truly, included) contracted to follow him to the ends of the earth or until you had no more blood to sell, whichever comes first. And Moreno was a thoroughly worthy winner of the Whitney. He set a pace that seemed honest, and he kept right on going strongly enough to earn a solid preliminary Beyer Speed Figure of 108. And it makes perfect sense to me to wheel him right back in the Woodward. I know Moreno won the Dwyer at Belmont last year, but he seems to run a little better at Saratoga.

Other Saturday notes

** It was probably no surprise that after her explosive romp in the Vanity Stakes, in which she earned a 109 Beyer that was 10 points higher than her previous career top, Iotapa would sustain some sort of form regression in the Clement L. Hirsch at Del Mar. But it’s pretty nice that a horse can regress and still win her second straight Grade 1 event, which Iotapa did Saturday by grinding down the loose-on-the-lead Broken Sword in a gutsy effort. It’s even nicer when a horse can regress sharply and do that, and Iotapa’s regression was pretty distinct. The preliminary Beyer for the Hirsch is 92.

** I don’t want to say anything because trainer Leah Gyarmati has done a terrific job with her, but if Sweet Reason were mine, she would never see a two-turn race again for the rest of her life, even if she lived to be 100. Sweet Reason’s measured victory in the Test Stakes, her third career Grade 1 score and her third victory from as many starts there, improved her record in one-turn races to four wins from five starts with a second in the Grade 1 Frizette. And Sweet Reason was best in the Frizette after a poor start. She is a textbook example of a closing sprinter, albeit one who performs in extended sprints, who just isn’t anywhere near as effective in routes.

** It is hard to deny Palace his due as one of the top sprinters in the country after his decisive victory in the Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt, and that is very much a reflection of the fine work trainer Linda Rice has done with him. Palace’s victory in the Vandy was cool on a couple of levels. First, it was the first of two Grade 1 wins Saturday at Saratoga by women trainers. Second, it underscored the fact that Palace was one of the best claims in recent years. He was taken in his fourth career start for only $20,000 in October 2012 out of a New York-bred maiden race at Belmont Park, his first and only outing for a tag, which he won in a romp. Palace’s win Saturday pushed his career earnings over the $1 million mark.

** Palace was one of three ex-claimers who won three Grade 1 races in a week’s time. As Jay Privman noted on Twitter, Big Macher, who won last Sunday’s Grade 1 Bing Crosby at Del Mar, was claimed for $20,000 out of his career debut, and Iotapa was claimed for $50,000 from her first career start.

** Win margins so often are deceptive, with Tapiture’s nose victory in the West Virginia Derby being another example. Tapiture’s narrow win margin doesn’t come close to indicating how much better he was than runner-up Candy Boy and everyone else in the West Virginia Derby field. After an aborted attempt to get through inside of pacesetter Vicar’s in Trouble in the upper stretch, Tapiture was taken up and angled sharply outside of both Vicar’s in Trouble and Candy Boy, losing all momentum at a critical point. Candy Boy, meanwhile, had clear run and unimpeded momentum. So for Tapiture to still catch him, he had to be much the best.

** Big Blue Kitten, a Grade 1 winner at 11 and 12 furlongs last year, made a successful 2014 bow in the Lure Stakes going an 8 1/2-furlong distance that clearly is well short of what has become his best. Big Blue Kitten’s 2014 debut was delayed because of soreness after his unsuccessful start in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, but I wouldn’t be surprised if jumping in with top turf horses during the second half of the year doesn’t become an intentional thing. All of our really major turf events, the ones that carry most championship weight, are in the fall. Little of what happens on turf here the first half of the year is of major significance, so why bother with it?

** The De La Rose Stakes was about as tough a restricted stakes as you will see thanks to the participation of Grade 1 winner Dayatthespa and Grade 3 winner Pianist, who were both making their seasonal debuts. And they ran well, finishing second and third. But even though she had the edge in recent activity, Filimbi impressed winning the De La Rose and looks like a graded stakes winner in the making.