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Palace Malice put in a disappointing performance in the August 2 Whitney Stakes after going off as the favorite. (Photos by NYRA/Eddie Davis)

By Tom Pedulla, America’s Best Racing

Questions were many and answers remained relatively few less than 24 hours after Palace Malice’s failure to fire in the $1.5-million Whitney Handicap on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course.

Palace Malice had swept his first four starts this season to climb to the top of the weekly rankings compiled by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. He opened his 4-year-old season by displaying big heart when he gutted out a head victory against Golden Ticket in the Gulfstream Park Handicap on March 8. He showed durability when he returned three weeks later to rule the New Orleans Handicap by 4 ¾ lengths despite a wide trip.

He flashed an abundance of speed when he dominated the Westchester by 9 ¾ lengths on May 11 at Belmont Park. His grit was again there for all to see when he split foes for regular rider John Velazquez to best Goldencents by one length in the $1.25-million Metropolitan Handicap - a race prized by breeders - on June 7 at Belmont.

All of that led to considerable Horse of the Year chatter as he prepared for the Whitney and he entered the starting gate as an overwhelming favorite. It appeared that the extraordinary colt who discovered countless ways to lose as a 3-year-old had finally figured it all out. And then, inexplicably, he finished a dull sixth in the Whitney and never made wire-to-wire victor Moreno sweat for only his third victory in 20 career starts.

Trainer Todd Pletcher, renowned for solving problems as the preeminent trainer of his era, may be hard pressed to unravel this one. “It’s a head scratcher,” Pletcher said on Sunday morning. “Everything we’ve seen so far indicates that he came out of it well. He cooled out sound. He scoped clean. He ate up (Saturday) night. His temperature is normal and he’s sound.”

Pletcher added, “We’ll pull some bloodwork on him later in the week and see if that reveals anything. If that doesn’t, I don’t know what to do other than regroup and start training again.”

PALACE MALICE BEFORE SATURDAY'S WHITNEY

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There was no blaming the racing surface. The son of Curlin won two of three previous starts at Saratoga. The one and one-eighth mile distance should have hit the colt between the eyes. He owned two victories with one runner-up finish when covering that amount of ground in four previous starts.

Velazquez said Palace Malice warmed up “beautiful” and there was no faulting his ride. “We thought we would come away in a stalking type position and we got to that point,” Pletcher said. “But at the same time, as I was watching the race unfold, I never felt like he was taking Johnny anywhere. At the top of the stretch, when they snuck away, it was pretty obvious at that point (he wasn’t going to win).”

Palace Malice finished 10 ¾ lengths behind Moreno. It felt like more. It represented his largest margin of defeat since the addition of blinkers led him to set impossible early fractions in the Kentucky Derby and he finished an exhausted 12th, trounced by 13 ½ lengths.

This lopsided defeat evoked memories of the youngster who was his own worst enemy in 2013, jumping tire tracks in the Blue Grass Stakes, running off in the Kentucky Derby and breaking slowly in a Travers that did not allow him any margin for error.

Pletcher said he will likely stick to his plan of running Palace Malice in the Woodward Stakes on Aug. 30 at Saratoga. That leaves him precious little time to reinvigorate a potential Horse of the Year who is a question once more.

Tune in to Fox Sports 1 on Aug. 10 for the Saratoga Special Stakes
and on Aug. 17 for the Sword Dancer Invitational Stakes.

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