07/31/2014 12:49PM

Crist: Rare rivalry featured in Whitney

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So many things in racing don’t quite work out the way we would like. Horses’ careers are cut short by injury; they fail to hold their form from year to year; potentially compelling rivalries fizzle just as they’ve begun. It’s the nature of the game. It also makes it all the more heartening, and worthy of celebration, when things work out as well as could be hoped for, which is what will happen when Palace Malice and Will Take Charge step onto the Saratoga track Saturday afternoon to face off in the $1.5 million Whitney Stakes.

In some ways, this is exactly how the career of racehorses should unfold – two durable and talented colts, trained by masters of the game, running in the sport’s premier races and inevitably crossing path in pursuit of championships.

Both of these colts raced at Saratoga as 2-year-olds. A year later, they carved up Saratoga’s 3-year-old prizes, with Palace Malice beating Will Take Charge by a length in the Jim Dandy, then Will Take Charge beating Palace Malice by three-quarters of a length in the Travers. Now they are back for a Round 3 at Saratoga, facing each other in New York’s richest race for older horses.

Since the Travers, they have taken turns leading their division over the last 12 months. Will Take Charge won the 3-year-old title with subsequent victories in the Pennsylvania Derby and Clark and a fine second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. This year, Will Take Charge has struggled a bit, winning just 1 of 5 starts, but has been second in three Grade 1 races from coast to coast – the Donn at Gulfstream, the Big Cap at Santa Anita, and the Stephen Foster at Churchill.

Palace Malice, meanwhile, lost his final three starts as a 3-year-old after winning the Belmont Stakes and the Jim Dandy, but has returned an improved and thus far unbeatable 4-year-old, winning all four of his starts – the Gulfstream, New Orleans, Westchester, and Metropolitan handicaps under increasingly high weight, the last three with sparkling Beyer Speed Figures of 114, 113, and 111. He is widely considered the top racehorse in the country; last Monday, he received 32 of the 38 first-place votes in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s weekly Top Thoroughbred Poll. (Wise Dan, the reigning two-time Horse of the Year, was second with 5 votes, California Chrome third with one.)

The stars lined up just right for these two still to be racing at the highest level. Both colts have owners well past retirement age who think they have the best horse in the country and want to race them rather than hustle them off to stud. They have world-class trainers who are not afraid to run them: Palace Malice (Todd Pletcher) has made 16 career starts, while the Whitney will be Will Take Charge’s 21st trip to the post for D. Wayne Lukas.

Palace Malice also offers a pleasing connection to the last time that an older male dirt horse was considered the nation’s top runner at year’s end – his sire, Curlin, who by coincidence will be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame next Friday, in his first year of eligibility to the sport’s shrine. Curlin was the Horse of the Year in 2007, when he won the Preakness, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Breeders’ Cup Classic and in 2008, when he took the Dubai World Cup, Foster, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. Since then, every U.S. Horse of the Year has been a filly (Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, Havre de Grace) or a grass horse (Wise Dan.) Palace Malice, from the first crop of foals sired by Curlin, could return a traditional older dirt male to that perch.

The Whitney, doubled in value from $750,000 to $1.5 million this year, is part of a stellar, stakes-rich Saratoga card Saturday that is the third attempt this year at consolidating stakes races in New York to create big festival days. (The first two were Belmont Stakes Day, June 7, and the inaugural Stars and Stripes Day, July 5.) The Whitney is one of three Grade 1 races on the program, along with the Vanderbilt and the Test, which also includes the ungraded De La Rose and Lure.

It should be an excellent afternoon of racing, headed by a showdown between the top racehorse in the country this year and the champion 3-year-old of last year, each spending his third summer at Saratoga. It’s racing as it was meant to be.