If the result of the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) served to confuse the picture at the top of the sophomore ranks, it at least made one thing abundantly clear. On the basis of the 3-year-olds that ran in the Belmont—a group that included the winners of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and Preakness Stakes (both gr. I)—it seems evident that the modern North American classic horse wants no part of 1 1/2 miles.
Despite winner Palace Malice and runner-up Oxbow , who were near the sharp end at the midpoint, running the second half of the race nearly 10 seconds slower than the first, other runners attempting to close from off the quick early fractions could make no headway on the duo. In fact, Palace Malice, who deserves credit for staying on in determined fashion after being quite close to a :46-and-change opening half mile, actually pulled away at the end despite running his final four furlongs in 54.23 seconds.
A grade I dirt race at 1 1/2 miles is something of an anomaly these days, of course, and many hold the view that it probably is not especially relevant to the larger picture, particularly concerning commercial breeding.
The problem is that breeding is a balancing act, and without some portion of the population that can excel beyond what is regarded as the American classic distance of 10 furlongs to counteract the speed in the breed, it becomes increasingly difficult to breed a horse that is at its best over that trip. Indeed, it's probable that our best classic type horses already are stretching out milers ideally suited by nine furlongs. Stay on this course for long, and one wonders at what point the final half mile of the Kentucky Derby begins to look like the latest Belmont. At that stage, there is a risk of the best horses no longer being suited to the best race. Unfortunately, unless there is a shake-up in the program that sees establishment of races at a wider range of distance at all levels of class, there is insufficient incentive for breeders, and particularly commercial breeders, to attempt to introduce significant stamina into their plans.
On a more positive note, we can observe that Palace Malice—who, having fulfilled the potential that his connections always felt that he possessed, looks a contender for the top spot among the 3-year-olds going forward—is from the first crop of his sire, Curlin , a horse who appears to have the potential to be an influence for classic stamina. Unraced at 2, the son of Smart Strike finished third in the Kentucky Derby on only his fourth outing. He then captured the Preakness before going on to demonstrate his credentials at 1 1/2 miles, losing the Belmont to Rags to Riches in a photo finish after the pair had battled the length of the straight. Curlin closed out the year by earning honors as champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year with victories in the Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes and Breeders' Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (both gr. I).
Curlin went on to take a second Horse of the Year title at 4 after a year in which he captured the Emirates Airline Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) and the Woodward Stakes, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Stephen Foster Handicap (all gr. I). He also tried his hand on the turf, where he ran a creditable second to previous John Deere Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. I) victor Red Rocks in the 11-furlong Man o' War Stakes (gr. I). Given his background, one wouldn't have expected the offspring of Curlin to be early, but he was represented by 15 juvenile winners last year. In addition to Palace Malice were stakes winners Stopshoppingdebbie and Countess Curlin, and three stakes-placed horses from Curlin's first crop.
Palace Malice's dam, Palace Rumor, gained a stakes win in the Audubon Oaks over 8 1/2 furlongs on turf at Ellis Park. She is a daughter of the Theatrical horse Royal Anthem. A tall, long-striding front-runner, Royal Anthem produced a remarkable performance when taking the Juddmonte International Stakes (Eng-I) by eight lengths, and he had several more notable performances between 10 and 12 furlongs in England and North America, including wins in the King Edward VII Stakes (Eng-II) at Royal Ascot, the Canadian International (Can-IT), and the Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. IT).
Palace Rumor is a half sister to Maya's Storm and Jumpifyoudare, who were both minor stakes winners, mostly in Iowa-bred restricted events. Palace Malice's second dam, Whisperifyoudare, a daughter of Red Ransom, won twice, and is a half sister to the dam of good Caifornian runner Rail Trip, a winner of more than $1.5 million, including the TVG/Betfair Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I). The third dam, Stellar Affair (by Skywalker), won the Matching Stakes at Del Mar, but there isn't much else of real note in the female line until the sixth dam, Fantastic Review, a half sister to the brilliant English sprinter Flirting Around (later a good sire in South Africa).
Palace Malice, who is rated B+ by TrueNicks, is the product of a similar cross that produced Smart Strike's champion turf horse English Channel —runaway winner of the 1 1/2-mile Breeders' Cup Turf—who was out of a mare by Theatrical, the grandsire of the dam of Palace Malice. Retired to stud a year ahead of Curlin, alongside whom he stands at Lane's End Farm, English Channel also has made an excellent start to his stud career, and has nine first-crop stakes winners, including Canadian champion and classic winner Strait of Dover and U.S. graded scorers Blueskiesnrainbows (like Curlin, out of a Deputy Minister mare), Optimizer, Skyring, and Channel Lady.