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Palace reigns in G1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap

By Jon Forbes | 08/02/2014 07:07 PM ET
PHOTO/Adam Coglianese

Palace, who was claimed for $20,000 in 2012, became a Grade 1 winner on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course by making an inexorable rally to overtake free-running pacesetter Happy My Way and capture the 30th edition of the Grade 1, $350,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap.

Backed as the 2-1 second choice in the six-furlong race for 3-year-olds and up, Palace bobbled at the start before recovering to race in third inside a pair of horses as Happy My Way, the 8-5 favorite, ran the opening quarter-mile in 22.13 seconds while racing on a 1 ½-length lead.

Palace advanced into second on the far turn as Happy My Way extended his advantage to 2 ½ lengths, running the half in 44.49. Cornelio Velasquez angled Palace outside for the stretch run, and his mount steadily gained on the early leader under a right-handed drive, taking the lead with 50 yards to travel and going on to prevail by one length.

"I wanted to wait for the last three-sixteenths, and have him come in the end," said Velasquez. "He came fast. He's a very good horse."

Palace was clocked in 1:08.56 and returned $6.20 for a $2 win wager.

"I was a little concerned about the No. 1 post position," said winning trainer Linda Rice. "It's not ideal. It looked like he broke a step slow, so I was a little concerned at that point. It looked like the No. 5 horse, Happy My Way, was on a loose lead. Obviously, I was somewhat concerned, but this horse is such a competitor. He's got the heart of a lion. Cornelio went after [Happy My Way] early, and he was able to run him down in the stretch. This horse really has a strong finish, and once he switched to his right lead and he was in reach of [Happy My Way] - he's such a tremendous competitor - I knew that he would get to him."

Palace has gradually ascended in class since being claimed by Rice and owner Antonino Miuccio in October 2012. His first pair of stakes wins came last year against New York-breds as he took the Chowder's First at Saratoga in August and the Hudson Handicap in October at Belmont Park. He concluded his 2013 season by winning the Grade 3 Fall Highweight Handicap in November and finishing second to last year's Grade 1 Forego victor Strapping Groom in the Gravesend Handicap in December at Aqueduct Racetrack.

After finishing second in Aqueduct's Gold and Roses for state-breds in January and fourth in the Grade 3 General George Handicap in February at Laurel Park, Palace regained winning form by taking the Grade 2 True North Handicap by three-quarters of a length in June at Belmont. He entered the Vanderbilt off a second, beaten 6 ¼ lengths by Clearly Now, in the Grade 3 Belmont Sprint Championship at seven furlongs on July 5.

Rice believes Palace's best distance is six furlongs, but said Palace will be considered for the Grade 1, $500,000 Forego at seven furlongs on August 30 at the Spa.

"I was just trying to get to today," said Rice. "I know the next spot at Saratoga is seven furlongs. If he's training well into it, we still might give it a try, even though I think three-quarters is a better distance for him. We'll see how it turns out."

Palace, a 5-year-old son of Rice's star protégé City Zip, is 10-5-2 in 20 starts. With the $210,000 winner's share of the Vanderbilt purse, he has now pushed his bankroll into seven figures at $1,009,550.

Joe Orseno, trainer of Happy My Way, was not discouraged by the defeat and said the Breeders' Cup in November at Santa Anita remains the long-term objective for his horse.

"Very happy. Very happy with that," said Orseno. "I said all along, he needed a freshener. We were going to do it now. We gave him 2 1/2 months off [after Happy My Way's win in the Grade 3 Maryland Sprint Handicap on May 17 at Pimlico]. I did not lean on him very hard to get him ready for this because my big picture is November. I told [jockey] Joey [Bravo], 'Nurse him along as far as you can, but you've got to have some horse left.' Again, the grand scheme of things for me is November. He proves today he belongs. I'm ecstatic. Of course we'd like to win, but all the connections understand what we did and where we're at. I'm very happy with the horse."

Falling Sky finished 3 ½ lengths behind the winner in third and was followed by Vyjack, Capo Bastone, Lemon Drop Dream, and Bahamian Squall. Bakken, the 5-2 morning-line favorite, was scratched.

"I was concerned about the scratch of Bakken," said Rice. "There wasn't as much pace in the race as the True North. There was a lot of speed in the [True North], which caused me to run him with only a few breezes. Today there was a lack of speed in the race, but he's so tactical."