Updated on 09/25/2013 4:03PM

Breeders' Cup Classic: Orb, Palace Malice test waters versus elders

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Tom Keyser
Palace Malice, most recently fourth in the Travers, will face older horses for the first time in Saturday's Jockey Club Gold Cup.

ARCADIA, Calf. – There are certain times of the racing calendar that are perennial. Every spring, there is wonder over which 2-year-olds have progressed into Kentucky Derby contenders, and which have already peaked. And every fall, after the merits of the current 3-year-old class have been debated and dissected, the answers are revealed as to whether the best of that crop can successfully compete against their elders.

In the 29 prior runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a 3-year-old has won the race nine times, beginning with Proud Truth in 1985, and most recently by Raven’s Pass, right here at Santa Anita, in 2008.

This year’s Classic, to be run again at Santa Anita, is a little more than five weeks away, but the fascination of whether the current crop of 3-year-olds can hold their own against their elders ramps up significantly on Saturday, with, most notably, Triple Crown race winners Orb and Palace Malice competing in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.

The Gold Cup is one of three important races Saturday that serve as preps to the $5 million Classic, the last and richest leg of the 14-race Breeders’ Cup extravaganza Nov. 1-2 at Santa Anita. Also on tap are the Homecoming Classic at Churchill Downs, in which last year’s Classic winner, Fort Larned, is scheduled to compete, and the Awesome Again at Santa Anita, featuring Mucho Macho Man, last year’s Classic runner-up, as well as fan favorite Paynter.

But it is the Gold Cup that is by far the most intriguing. Not only will it define the leading New York-based contenders for the Classic, but it will serve as a guideline as to how this year’s class of 3-year-olds measures up against such top-class older runners as Flat Out, winner of the last two runnings of the Gold Cup, and Cross Traffic.

Shug McGaughey, trainer of Orb, has been down this road many times before during his Hall of Fame career. He said he is eager to find out how Orb, the Kentucky Derby winner, stacks up.

“He’s a top-quality colt with a lot of upside,” McGaughey said from New York on Wednesday morning. “It’s a good race. Whether he can beat older horses, we’ll find out.”

Orb and Palace Malice both awaited the Jockey Club Gold Cup, at 1 1/4 miles at Belmont Park, rather than run 1 1/8 miles in a race restricted to 3-year-olds, the Pennsylvania Derby, last week at Parx Racing. Both last raced in the Travers Stakes, where Orb was third and Palace Malice fourth, both with excuses. The form of the Travers was validated when Will Take Charge and Moreno, the first two finishers in the Travers, ran 1-2 again in the Pennsylvania Derby.

Palace Malice, the Belmont Stakes winner, had an aggressive pre-Derby schedule, yet has held his form through the summer, which trainer Todd Pletcher said was “pretty rare.”

“Some of these 3-year-olds go through the Derby preps and bottom out, or they run in the Derby and Belmont and then need a break, but with him, the more activity he has, the stronger his races are and the better he trains,” Pletcher said on a national teleconference earlier this week.

Pletcher said he believes Palace Malice “stacks up very well” against the older horses he will face because of “the way he’s been running, his maturity level, and his physical development.”

Palace Malice is a son of Curlin, who is one of the nine 3-year-olds to have won the Classic. Curlin did it in 2007, capping off a brilliant year that began with him as an unraced maiden.

“That’s a natural comparison with the pedigree,” Pletcher said. “We never thought Palace Malice would show as much speed as he did as a 2-year-old. We always thought he’d do better with more distance.”

Like Curlin, Palace Malice is a big, strong colt, the kind who can physically take an ambitious, year-long campaign.

“To me, he looks like he’s put on weight,” Pletcher said. “It’s rare to see a horse run in those kinds of races and continue to flourish.”

After the Belmont, Palace Malice won the Jim Dandy, then had an unlucky trip in the Travers, in which he finished a close fourth after a poor start.

“I was shocked he got as close as he did after he got off to the start he did,” Pletcher said. “The ground just left him. It was a huge effort on his part.”

Mike Smith, who rode Palace Malice, said he “absolutely lost his back end leaving the gate.”

“I believe he was the best horse in that race,” Smith said.

The margin for error narrows noticeably with this newest challenge. Palace Malice, or Orb, can’t afford to take a literal step back.

Both the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Awesome Again offers fees-paid berths to the BC Classic through the Win and You’re In program.

This year’s Breeders’ Cup will be the 30th and will be run at Santa Anita for the seventh time. Santa Anita played host to the event last year and already has been tabbed to host next year, marking the first time the Breeders’ Cup will be held at the same location three straight years.

The Breeders’ Cup had expanded to 15 races in recent years, but has eliminated the Juvenile Sprint from this year’s menu, so there will be 14 races for Thoroughbreds, five on Nov. 1 and nine – including the Classic – on Nov. 2. Purses will total $27 million.

In addition, the Breeders’ Cup recently announced it will run an affiliated race for pure-bred Arabians on the Nov. 1 card, which will be a first at the Breeders’ Cup.

A previous version of this article misstated the number of races on each Breeders' Cup program. There will be five Thoroughbred races on Friday's card and nine races on Saturday's.