NEW YORK Palace Malice followed a perfect script to upstage the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes champions on Saturday and win the Belmont Stakes, the final race of the Triple Crown for three-year-old thoroughbreds.
Palace Malice, who was 12th in the Kentucky Derby, won by 3 1/4 lengths with Mike Smith aboard after prevailing in a stretch run duel with Preakness winner Oxbow, who finished second ahead of late closing Derby winner Orb.
The Belmont victor had set the early pace in the Derby only to fade at Churchill Downs, but on a sunny day with the track rated fast despite Friday's rains, Palace Malice maintained his powerful stride, this time racing without blinders.
"Blinkers off, honestly," Smith said about the difference in his horse this time. "He was just enjoying the trip, sucking all the air in."
Palace Malice skipped the Preakness, the middle race of the series, and seemed stronger down the stretch as he surged to the lead in the last quarter mile and pulled away from Oxbow, who won the Preakness leading wire-to-wire.
Jockey Smith saluted trainer Todd Pletcher's game plan for Palace Malice, who paid almost $30.
"Likely you'll be sitting right outside of Oxbow, just keep your eye on him and you just play it from there," Smith said about his pre-race talk with Pletcher. "That's really what we did.
"We thought Freedom Child would probably be in front. I knew Oxbow would be sitting right of him, and we just parked ourselves right outside of him."
Smith said his winning move past Oxbow and his rider, Gary Stevens, was like a movie moment.
"I was keeping a close eye on him," Smith said about the ride as he headed toward the end of the backstretch. "I felt I was moving better.
"When I ranged up next to him, it was like a movie scene. He looked over to me. I could see his face clear as day. He says, 'go on little brother, you're moving better than me. Just ride off your win.'
"And I won. He run second. You couldn't have written this script any better.
Trained by Pletcher, who had a record five runners in the 14-horse field, Palace Malice fulfilled some early high hopes for the colt, who won only one of his first seven races, with his lone victory a maiden race at Saratoga.
"It's huge. We always felt like he had a big one in him. He needed to put it all together," Pletcher said from the winner's circle. "We were quietly confident coming in."
Orb, the 2-1 favorite who won the Derby on a sloppy track, trailed far back in the field before mounting a rousing charge down the stretch with Joel Rosario astride that came up short.
Palace Malice paid $29.60 $11.20 and $6.70 for a $2.00 wager in the mile and a half race, the longest test of the Triple Crown. Oxbow returned $9.90, $6.10, and Orb $3.90.
Smith said Palace Malice made a dream run.
"Today was our day," the jockey said, giving Pletcher a full share of the credit. "It ran exactly like he wrote it. Perfect plan."
(Reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Gene Cherry/Peter Rutherford)