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Palace Malice drew clear of Preakness winner Oxbow to win the Belmont Stakes on Saturday at Belmont Park. (Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire)

By Tom Pedulla, America’s Best Racing

ELMONT, N.Y. – Trainer Todd Pletcher never lost confidence in Palace Malice, even as the colt dropped six of his first seven starts and opened his 3-year-old campaign with five fruitless efforts that included a Kentucky Derby that went horribly awry.

That unwavering faith was finally rewarded when a youngster with obvious talent but little to show for it delivered the big performance his connections yearned for with an emphatic 3 1/4-length victory in the 145th Belmont Stakes on Saturday.

“I kept saying, ‘I know there is a big [race] there;’ I felt like he had a big one in him,” said Pletcher. “I kept waiting for it to materialize in the afternoon.”

It did, just in time for the son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin to overtake runner-up Oxbow, the Preakness victor, and withstand the belated run of third-place Orb, the Derby champion.

The result, before 47,562 fans, was in keeping with recent Belmont Stakes history. Of the last 16 editions, only two have gone to horses that won previous Triple Crown races. Point Given (2001) and Afleet Alex (2005) both took the Preakness before using the 1 ½-mile “Test of the Champion” as a fitting encore.

Palace Malice, opposing what equaled the second-largest field in the history of the final leg of the Triple Crown as he took on 13 challengers, hardly seemed a likely candidate to emerge from the crowd for jockey Mike Smith. He rewarded his backers with $29.60 for a $2 win wager.

“The main thing was Mike was able to get him into a really comfortable rhythm,” Pletcher said.

Palace Malice had been an exercise in frustration before this. He endured a difficult trip when he came home seventh in the Louisiana Derby, then missed by a neck in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on synthetic Polytrack surface at Keeneland Race Course. The addition of blinkers for the Derby proved to be a horrible idea. He was so difficult to control as he set ridiculously fast fractions for the mile-and-a-quarter “Run for the Roses” that Smith feared he would be replaced after they faded to 12th.

“They could have changed very easily after the Derby,” said Smith, a runner-up in all three Triple Crown races last year. “It wasn’t the prettiest of things.”

But Cot Campbell, who heads victorious Dogwood Stable, knows talent when he sees it. He stuck with Smith just as he showed confidence in Pletcher when he was starting out as a trainer in 1996 by giving him a handful of horses when few others would consider him.

“He will go down as one of the great trainers in the game,” Campbell said. “At least I had the good sense to help give him his start.”

Pletcher earned his second Belmont Stakes victory after the filly Rags to Riches presented him with his first victory in a Triple Crown race in 2007.

“Rags to Riches was sort of about getting the monkey off my back,” he said. “I hadn’t won a classic yet. It was tremendously exciting, but also a relief. This was just exciting.”

Gary Stevens, 50, who made a triumphant return from a seven-year retirement when Oxbow pulled an upset in the Preakness, thought his mount did well to be second best this time.

“Going into the far turn, I didn’t think he would hit the board,” he said. “To finish second, I am really surprised. He galloped out after the race like you wouldn’t believe. I’m really proud of him.”

Orb showed more life than he did when he got pinned inside and finished a lackluster fourth in the Preakness. Yet he was never a threat to an obviously tiring Palace Malice, who completed the distance in 2:30.70.

“He just ran okay,” said trainer Shug McGaughey. “He made a good run around the turn, but we had given up so much.”

The afternoon belonged to those who kept faith in Palace Malice and especially to Campbell, 85, who played a lead role in bringing partnerships to racing.

“It’s the mother of all great moments,” he said.

SLIDESHOW: PALACE MALICE WINNING BELMONT

(Photos courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire)

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