Last year, the Westchester Stakes (GIII) drew a field of four. Palace Malice came into it off of two sharp victories in the Gulfstream Park Handicap (GII) and the New Orleans Handicap (GIII), and it would be his final tune-up before the Met Mile. He had a legitimate claim to the title of best in the Handicap division, and he looked to be in his prime. Only Declan’s Warrior, I’m Steppin It Up, and Red Rifle lined up to face Palace Malice, and he won it as easily as a horse could.
The 2015 Westchester Stakes will happen on Saturday at Belmont Park. It drew today, and not everything mirrors last year.
Palace Malice returns to the field, and his team still intends it as a local tune-up for the Met Mile. The race also drew a short field again; this time five plan to see the starter.
Palace Malice comes in a little different, and the field he faces will be a little different.
This will be Palace Malice’s first race since August 2 of last year, when he finished an uncharacteristically flat sixth in the Whitney (GI). In that time he was diagnosed with a bone bruise and retired to stud. I thought I had never seen him race again. Just as I was finally comprehending his retirement from the track enough to really mourn it, a ray of hope appeared. His stud deal allowed for one more year of racing if he was fit. After a few months of recovery for Palace Malice — and nervous waiting for me — his team declared him fit to go back into training.
He went to Aiken, and eventually back to Florida. A foot problem delayed his returned to Aiken by a week or so, but he returned to the worktab on February 28. His team had already announced that the Westchester would be his debut race for the year, and he has published a work a week ever since, like clockwork.
He will have needed to get a lot out of those works. Last year, Palace Malice was the only Big Horse who decided to point toward the Westchester.
This year? He is not even the only Belmont winner making his 2015 debut in the race. Tonalist will race there, for the first time since the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Confrontation, a tight second behind Lea in the Hal’s Hope, entered the race. Souper Lucky, third behind the ever-consistent Page McKenney in the Harrison E. Johnson at Laurel last out, will visit Belmont for the first time since last July. The beautiful Juba, just getting his career rolling at age four after a condylar fracture, a winner of two straight at Gulfstream and Aqueduct, makes his stakes debut.
Last year, the Westchester was a paid workout third off the lay. This year, it is a tough first race in a five-year-old season we almost never saw.
Good luck, and stay safe, Palace Malice. I am thrilled to see you race again, and hoping you can build upon your best from last year. The first step will not be easy, but it well befits the tough campaign ahead.