ELMONT, N.Y. - Palace Malice will take on a deep field, including the top four finishers from the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Stakes, in the Grade 1, $1.25 million Metropolitan Handicap on Saturday at Belmont Park.
The Met Mile, previously contested on Memorial Day, was carded as the ninth race on the 13-race card and is a Breeders' Cup Challenge "Win and You're In Race" in the Dirt Mile division.
Palace Malice won the 2013 Belmont Stakes and will attempt to become the first horse to win both the Belmont and the Met Mile in his career since Conquistador Cielo swept the races in 1982. No horse has won the races in separate years since Gallant Man (1957 Belmont, 1958 Met Mile).
The 2014 Met Mile, as is customary, attracted its share of sprinters, middle distance horses, and routers.
"You get everything [in the Met Mile]," said Todd Pletcher, who trains Palace Malice for Dogwood Stable. "You get the sprinters stretching out, the routers backing up, the true milers. It's what makes it interesting."
Palace Malice validated his 13-1 Belmont Stakes upset victory by taking the Grade 2 Jim Dandy in his following start, and then was beaten just three-quarters of a length when fourth in the Grade 1 Travers, both at Saratoga Race Course. He was a distant second in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup in September at Belmont before concluding his 3-year-old season with a sixth in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Classic in November at Santa Anita.
This year, Palace Malice is unbeaten in three starts, with two of those wins coming at the Metropolitan Handicap's one-mile distance. He out-battled Golden Ticket by a head in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap in March, soundly defeated fellow Met Mile entrant Normandy Invasion by 4 Â¾ lengths traveling 1 1/8 miles in the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap in March at the Fair Grounds, and easily handled three opponents when taking the Grade 3 Westchester by 9 Â¾ lengths over the Met Mile's course and distance on May 11.
"I think he's adaptable to different pace scenarios," said Pletcher. "He can sit off a fast pace, he can prompt a slow pace. He's pretty dangerous from a number of strategies."
Palace Malice's adaptability will be put to the test in the Met Mile as the son of Curlin drew post position 1 in the field of 13. The 4-year-old is the 124-pound high weight.
"It's concerning, especially when you consider we're also carrying the top weight," said Pletcher. "At the same time, it is what it is, and, hopefully, he is good enough, seasoned enough, professional enough, and handy enough to overcome a less-than-ideal draw."
Hall of Famer John Velazquez, who rode Palace Malice in the Gulfstream Park Handicap and in the Westchester, has the call in the Met Mile.
Central Banker, Shakin It Up, Clearly Now, and Broadway Empire, the respective top four finishers in the Grade 2 Churchill Downs on May 3, will meet again in the Met Mile.
In the seven-furlong Churchill Downs, 4-year-old Central Banker raced in midpack early and prevailed over Shakin It Up in a lengthy stretch battle to earn his first graded stakes victory. It was the second start of 2014 for Central Banker, who was sixth in the Grade 1 Carter Handicap in April at Aqueduct Racetrack and closed out his sophomore campaign with a pair of close runner-up performances in the Thanksgiving Handicap at the Fair Grounds and in the Grade 1 Malibu at Santa Anita.
"He ran a great race in the Churchill Downs, a career best, and he's coming into this race the right way," said trainer Al Stall Jr. "If he can repeat his Churchill Downs performance or improve a little he'll definitely have a shot here. His Carter was a tough race - he was in the No. 1 hole and got pinned - and other than that he has been running better numbers each time."
Central Banker, owned by Klaravich Stables and William H. Lawrence, will leave from post 6 with Corey Nakatani aboard. He was tabbed at 8-1 on the morning line and assigned 119 pounds.
The Churchill Downs reversed the form of the Malibu, which Shakin It Up won by a half-length in December. In his two starts before the Churchill Downs, Shakin It Up successfully stretched out to 1 1/8 miles in the Grade 2 Strub in January at Santa Anita and was fifth in the seven-furlong Grade 2 San Carlos in March.
Shakin It Up, trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert for Dennis Cardoza and Michael Pegram, will have a new rider in Rosie Napravnik from post 13. The son of Midnight Lute, the 6-1 third choice on the morning line, was assigned 120 pounds.
Clearly Now - winner of the 2013 Grade 3 Swale and 2013 Bold Ruler Handicap, both at seven furlongs - drew post 10, was tabbed at 10-1, and will carry 117 pounds, including rider Jose Lezcano.
Broadway Empire, who took the 2013 Grade 3 Canadian Derby and the Grade 3 Oklahoma Derby over a route of ground, will be reunited with Scott Stevens, who rode the 4-year-old gelding to a 9 Â¾-length victory in an optional claimer in April at Turf Paradise. Trained by Robertino Diodoro for a partnership headed by Randy Howg, Broadway Empire, 20-1, drew post 11 and will tote 115 pounds.
Goldencents, who took the 2013 Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, will attempt to start his 2014 campaign in winning fashion when he competes in the Met Mile.
Last spring, Goldencents won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby before finishing 17th in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby and fifth in the Grade 1 Preakness. Following the Triple Crown, his connections decided to focus on shorter races, and the move paid off as the colt finished second in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby, Grade 2 Pat O'Brien, and Grade 1 Santa Anita Sprint Championship before wiring the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile by 2 Â¾ lengths in November. He looks to regain the winning thread after concluding 2013 with a seventh as the 3-1 favorite in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile Handicap in November at Aqueduct.
In preparation for the Met Mile, trainer Doug O'Neill has given Goldencents a series of fast six- and seven-furlong workouts at Santa Anita.
"He had a good series of works because there were no races for him," said Leandro Mora, assistant to O'Neill. "I believe he is good enough to compete with these guys, even though he has been away for quite a bit. He wasn't ready for the [San Carlos in March], and he is a fast horse, but we figure he is not a sprinter. He is a miler, and that's what his distance is."
Goldencents, who is owned by W C Racing, will have the services of Hall of Famer Mike Smith from post 4. The bay son of Into Mischief was installed at 10-1 on the morning line and assigned 121 pounds.
The 5-1 morning-line second choice is Normandy Invasion, who will carry 116 pounds from post 9 for Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farms and trainer Chad Brown. Normandy Invasion seeks his first stakes win, having finished second in the 2012 Grade 2 Remsen, 2013 Grade 1 Wood Memorial, and 2014 Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap. He entered the latter event off a 7 Â¾-length optional claimer score in a one-turn mile race in February at Gulfstream Park.
Javier Castellano will ride Normandy Invasion.
The Met Mile field also includes graded stakes winners Vyjack, Moreno, Capo Bastone, Declan's Warrior, and Romansh. Scarly Charly completes the field.