03/06/2014 4:42PM

Gulfstream Park Handicap: Palace Malice, Itsmyluckyday clash

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Barbara D. Livingston
Palace Malice (right), training with Cantron on Sunday, makes his first start since running sixth in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – The last time Palace Malice and Itsmyluckyday faced one another, the band was playing My Old Kentucky Home as they walked onto the racetrack prior to squaring off in the 2013 Kentucky Derby.

There will be far less fanfare, and the distance a mere mile rather than 1 1/4 miles, when two of the stars of last year’s Triple Crown season kick off their 2014 campaigns against six rivals in Saturday’s $250,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap.

Palace Malice finished 12th after setting a hot pace in the Derby, skipped the Preakness, then came back to win the Belmont Stakes in impressive fashion. Itsmyluckyday struggled over the wet track and checked home 15th in the Derby, nearly seven lengths behind Palace Malice, before rebounding two weeks later to finish second in the Preakness.

[DRF Live: Get live reports and handicapping insights from DRF writers and handicappers this Saturday]

Palace Malice was among the leaders of his division during the second half of his 3-year-old campaign, winning the Grade 2 Jim Dandy before finishing fourth following a poor start in the Travers. He faced older horses in his final two starts of the year, finishing a distant second behind a freakish Ron the Greek in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup and sixth, following another tardy beginning, in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“We’re really excited about getting him back,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “He’s shown enough speed in some of his races to lead us to believe a mile is well within his range. He had some huge moments as a 3-year-old. He was a little unlucky at times, but a half a length here and there and he could have had an unbelievable season. We always felt he was the type of horse who’d continue to develop as he got older, so we’re really looking forward to seeing what he can do this year.”

Itsmyluckyday has not started since suffering a pelvic fracture during the Grade 3 Pegasus on June 16 at Monmouth Park. That outing was his first since finishing second, 1 3/4 lengths behind Oxbow, in the Preakness.

“Everything is 110 percent,” said trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. “He’s just exactly where we want him, and this race came up in the right time frame, so that’s why we’re bringing him back here Saturday. Although the race did come up a little tougher than maybe I would have wanted to start the year.”

[Gulfstream Park Handicap: Get PPs, watch Saturday's card live]

Plesa said the distance of the Gulfstream Park Handicap is right up Itsmyluckyday’s alley. He won the Gulfstream Park Derby going a mile here in his 3-year-old debut.

“A mile is his distance, especially over this racetrack,” Plesa said. “He’s training just like he’s always trained. He’s gotten bigger and stronger with the time off. I always thought he was one of the more impressive horses training for the Derby and the Preakness, and if you watched him training now, he looks exactly the same.”

Palace Malice and itsmyluckyday will have to be on top of their games coming off layoffs, with several of the leading contenders in the Gulfstream Park Handicap already having had a race or two over the track this winter, most notably Falling Sky and Brujo de Olleros.

Falling Sky extended Palace Malice’s stablemate and fellow Triple Crown rival Revolutionary before finishing a game second going a mile under allowance conditions in January. He returned to run the race of his life, winning the seven-furlong Gulfstream Park Sprint Handicap by 5 1/2 lengths four weeks later.

“I think his speed is a weapon, an asset for him,” said trainer George Weaver when asked about his strategy for Falling Sky on Saturday. “He’s not the kind of horse you want to bottle up early. You’ve got to let him stretch his legs, although I don’t think he absolutely needs the lead, either. We’ll see how the race comes up and let the rider play it from there.”

Elvis Trujillo will be aboard Falling Sky for the first time Saturday, replacing Luis Saez, who is in California to ride Will Take Charge in the Santa Anita Handicap.

Brujo de Olleros will stretch back to a mile for the first time since finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and should benefit from what appears to be an abundance of pace in Saturday’s lineup. Brujo de Olleros rallied to finish third behind Falling Sky when the pair met four weeks earlier in the Gulfstream Park Sprint.

Golden Ticket finished three lengths in front of Brujo de Olleros when second in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, but has not started since finishing eighth in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap.

Completing the lineup are Narvaez, Uncaptured, and Sr. Quisqueyano.