I am a pessimist.
I was not always that way. When I was young, optimism seeped out of my pores. Everything was awesome, everything was going to be alright, and there was no point walking anywhere but on the sunny side of the street.
Once I gathered the least bit of self-awareness, somewhere in my pre-teen years, I realised that the combination of my natural enthusiasm and my optimism made me terribly obnoxious. Bad things would happen to me and the people I cared about. Nobody needed another Pollyanna, Tony Robbins, or Oprah Winfrey to deal with.
So, I crossed the street. The shade suited me better, anyway. I could assume from the outset that things were going to turn out poorly. If they didn’t, it was a pleasant surprise. The good things were going to mean more if I didn’t expect them to happen, and the bad things couldn’t take the wind out of my sails. After all, there were no longer any sails.
Then, horse racing happened.
It did not make me optimistic about everything, but it became a little something in my life that that made me happy no matter what else was going on. Horses are adorable, across the board, and I cannot help but wish well for every single horse. Even handicapping…I can always do it better, but it is easier to tolerate the learning curve when even the best get races wrong on occasion. I could enjoy it, get lost in it, and not plan on everything falling in on itself.
Still, there are times in horse racing when my need to temper expectations kicks in. First among those times was the un-retirement of Palace Malice.
When Palace Malice retired last year, I was crushed that I would never get to see him race in person. When Dogwood Stable announced that he would return at five, I was excited, but tried to keep that under control. I could not, would not let myself think he would return to the form of his four-year-old year. I hoped that he would make it back to the track, but tried to keep myself as prepared as possible for the possibility that he never would.
The way back was by no means smooth. He returned to Aiken, but had a foot bruise that delayed his move to Todd Pletcher’s Florida string. Then, he entered the Westchester. Last year the race drew soft; this year the race drew Tonalist. Another foot bruise, another week. He returned in the Diablo instead, the next week, at six furlongs instead of a mile. He finished third, behind two actual six-furlong horses in Stallwalkin’ Dude and Clearly Now. It was his first race in a year, and he made it home safely. He returned in a race at a suboptimal distance, and he hit the board.
He had gotten a race under him instead of heading into the Met Mile first off the lay. Things looked to be back on track. So, a week ago, I pulled the handle. I booked a plane ticket and a hotel, and I bought a ticket for Belmont Stakes day.
Belmont would be the perfect place to go see him, after all, and Belmont Stakes day the perfect time. That day in 2013 had been the first time I ever set aside “real life” for something related to horse racing. I ducked out of the closing plenary at a conference, asked someone to change the channel of the TV in the lobby to NBC, and watched the Belmont. I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with a horse that day — I just wanted to watch the race.
However, Palace Malice happened. I was still a peripheral enough fan of horse racing that I was not familiar with Palace Malice’s hard-luck history through the prep season. Still, after seeing him run loose and fade away five weeks before, it amazed me that he put it all together with the blinkers off.
It seemed only fitting that I would see Palace Malice in person for the first time on that same track, almost exactly two years later. The race would be a tough spot for him, a far stiffer test than last year’s Met Mile due to both his condition and his competition, but I hoped I would see him run well and return safely.
As much as I had tried to temper my expectations, I had finally allowed myself to dream a bit. Though the Westchester did not happen, the Diablo did. He had made it back to the track, something I thought (even knew!) would never happen as of last September. He had the race under him, and though that in no way implied it would be smooth sailing from there…he was over the first few hurdles, and racing again.
However, horse racing does not always bring that fairy-tale ending. Palace Malice will skip the Met Mile, and instead point toward the Whitney.
His connections know best. As a fan and observer, I always like to see connections be careful and cautious with their placements. If he is not training well enough to take on the likes of Tonalist and Private Zone, he should not. Even if I never see him in person until someday when I take a tour of Three Chimneys, I want him safe and well managed. If his team does not think he is ready for the Met Mile, he should not run. Period.
Of course, I gain a lot by going to the Belmont. I look forward to visiting a track I have never seen before, and to enjoying one of the best racing days of the year in person. I will still have stories and pictures, and will still be able to get closer to horses I love. The Met Mile will still be a top-shelf race. I look forward to the Belmont Stakes, to seeing both Keen Ice and Conquest Curlinate again. If American Pharoah does what no horse in my lifetime has, I will see it with my own eyes.
But, I am sad. I am disappointed that I will not get to see Palace Malice try to defend his Met Mile title in a week and a half. I am disappointed in myself for getting swept away in the hysteria, for allowing myself to dream that I would see him prance by me in a post parade in less than two weeks, over the track where he stole my heart two years ago.