#1: twelve days of Curlin babies

Welcome back to the twelve days of Curlin babies: a look back on twelve races during 2014 that stand out among races by Curlin’s progeny over the course of the year. They are races I keep returning to in my head, and ones that I am always excited to discuss. They will all have a story, a clear reason why they stand out among the hundreds of races in which I saw Curlin babies race this year.

#12: Federal Agent breaks his maiden
#11: Miss Frost wins the Tenski Stakes
#10: Curly Queen breaks her maiden
#9: Stopshoppingdebbie wins the Washington State Legislators Handicap
#8: J to the Croft, the longest shot on the board, breaks his maiden
#7: Moulin de Mougin wins the John C. Mabee Stakes
#6: She’s Curly, and the ad hoc match race
#5: Please Explain wins the Suncoast Stakes
#4: Golden Actor breaks his maiden
#3: Keen Ice breaks his maiden
#2: Whisper to Curlin wins the Iowa Breeders’ Derby

#1: Palace Malice wins the Gulfstream Park Handicap

One race this year had everything: my favourite racehorse, the odds stacked against him before the race, and a point during the race in which he looked in over his head.

After finishing sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic last year, Palace Malice went on his winter vacation.  He returned to Aiken to start training, and his connections had announced as early as November that the New Orleans Handicap (GII) would be his first race in 2014.  However, Cot Campbell announced in early February that the Gulfstream Park Handicap, not the New Orleans, would be his first race of the year.  The race would be a flat mile: something that seemed so short for a Belmont Stakes winner, and the shortest that Palace Malice would have attempted in stakes company up to that point.  It seemed like a tune-up race, so I tempered my hopes as much as I possibly could.

The field drew a tough field of horses, just about all of whom were better proven at shorter distances than Palace Malice was.  Golden Ticket had been second in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile behind Goldencents the previous November.  Falling Sky was coming off of a sharp Grade III win the month before in the seven-furlong Gulfstream Park Sprint Stakes, and Narvaez had finished second behind Falling Sky that day.  Uncaptured was a Grade III winner at a mile, having taken the Iroquois Stakes (GIII) his juvenile year.  Itsmyluckyday was a scary wild card: though he was running for the first time since an injury in June, he had a stakes win at a mile over the Gulfstream dirt under his belt.  Though Palace Malice had class to spare, a question still loomed about how he would handle the distance.

The gates flung open.  Palace Malice broke from the outermost gate of the field of seven, and settled outside near the back of the tightly-knit main pack.  That still only set him about a length and a half off the pace, perfect for a stalking type like him.  Approaching the far turn, Palace Malice and Itsmyluckyday moved in tandem to overtake Falling Sky, who folded midway through.  Palace Malice’s rally was the better one, and he struck the front before the three-sixteenths pole.

Uncaptured, rallying farther outside, would not let him off easily.  Uncaptured got his head in front turning for home, and Palace Malice would have had every excuse to lose the fight, go back to the barns, and tune up for the New Orleans Handicap.

Palace Malice does not need an excuse.  He found another rally, gutted his way back past Uncaptured, and had his head clearly in front by the time the field hit the sixteenth pole.  By then Golden Ticket was flying in with another challenge on the outside, but Palace Malice would not let him by.  Hitting the wire, Palace Malice remained a head in front of Golden Ticket.

Palace Malice had won first off the lay, fighting back against runners who were better proven at the distance.  He was now a graded stakes winner at a mile and a half…and also at a flat mile.

The race marked the beginning of a four-win streak for Palace Malice, all in graded stakes.  He stretched out to nine furlongs to take the New Orleans Handicap (GII), prevailed over the short Westchester Stakes (GIII) field as easily as a 1/20 shot could have been expected to, and then outran defending Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Goldencents to win the Met Mile (GI) for his second career Grade I victory.  Midsummer saw the clouds roll in: he finished a dull sixth in the Whitney (GI), his connections declared him out of the Woodward (GI), and then he was retired after scans revealed a bruised left hind cannon bone.  However, if all goes well, he will have another chance to prove his mettle against the older horse division: his stud agreement with Three Chimneys provided that he could race again if he was shown sound after a medical exam in November, and the results of that exam showed him to be fit to return to training.

Palace Malice is back in Aiken, and training toward his return.  He should be rejoining trainer Todd Pletcher in Florida come January.  If all goes well, he will be returning in the 2015 Westchester, defending his Met Mile crown, and then working toward another try in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  In the Gulfstream Park Handicap, he looked completely beaten before coming back to prevail.  Hopefully Palace Malice’s racing career — something that looked finished in September, but now is building for a comeback — can show the same trajectory.

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