He's the all-time earnings leader, the perennial king of Saratoga and a lock for the Hall of Fame. It's hard to imagine Todd Pletcher as a struggling young trainer with a small stable. Cot Campbell remembers when, and the 86-year-old master of Dogwood Stable helped Pletcher get rolling.
When Pletcher was D. Wayne Lukas' assistant from 1989-95, Campbell noticed his work ethic. "I'd see him scurrying around the box-seat section, always going about his business," Campbell said. Late in 1995, Pletcher went out on his own.
"He told me, and I said, 'Good luck,' " Campbell said. "Then early in '96, I sent him four or five horses. I think Todd has always been grateful for that. We've had a lot of good horses together, and it's been a great partnership."
Eighteen years later, the 4-year-old colt Palace Malice has brought it to a peak. Neither Campbell nor Pletcher has had a Horse of the Year, and the winner of the 2013 Belmont Stakes and this year's Met Mile is the leading candidate. Winning Saturday's Grade I, $1.5-million Whitney Stakes at the Spa would solidify his position. Palace Malice, the even-money favorite, drew post 5 in a field of nine for the 11/8-mile Whitney. He signaled his sharpness with Saturday's 5-furlong workout in 594/5 seconds.
"It'' a huge race," Pletcher said. "He's off to a great start [4-for-4] this year, and we're just hoping for more of the same. We know he likes Saratoga from the way he ran here the last two years."
Producing a star for one of his first clients means a lot to Pletcher. "We're very pleased we've been able to do this for Dogwood," he said. "I guess you never can say you expect that kind of development, but I can say I'm not surprised."
Unlike his sire, two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, a Preakness winner in his fourth start, Palace Malice was not precocious. J.J. Pletcher breaks "about 50 percent" of his son's yearlings. "Todd really liked him as a 2-year-old, but it just took him a while to learn," J.J. said. "He was such a slow learner."
After a blinkers experiment backfired in the Kentucky Derby -- he was 12th after running off in a 451/5 -second half-mile -- Palace Malice broke through in the 11/2-mile Belmont. With only a 1-for-7 resume, he went off at 13-1 odds and cruised by 31/2 lengths.
"It was very gratifying when he stepped up to win a classic," Todd Pletcher said.
Campbell said "in a perfect world" Palace Malice will sweep the Whitney, Woodward, Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders' Cup Classic. In January, he wanted to make a Horse of the Year bet with international bookmaker William Hill but was told he couldn't because the result was based on voting. In April, the state of Nevada gave a special dispensation, and Campbell put his money down.
"They gave me 12-1," he said. "Had they been able to take it in January, I bet I'd have gotten 40-1."