AIKEN -- Their morning work finished at the Aiken Training Center, the horses prepared for the walk back to their barns. Suddenly, exercise riders for global powerhouse Darley Stable pulled up their mounts to the rail and faced the track to salute the toast of Aiken.
This equine honor guard waited for Palace Malice to pass in review.
If horses could talk ...
"Oh, he knows he's good," said Cot Campbell, president of Dogwood Stable that owns Palace Malice. "He eats up the attention. He'll stop (cool-out walks) and look at fans almost like he's posing for the cameras.''
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Palace Malice won the Belmont Stakes in June, the third jewel in thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, and he's back home in this horse-crazy town for the winter. The residents love it, and his three-times-a-week workouts always draw a crowd.
"I blurted out on national TV after the Belmont that the people of Aiken, South Carolina, were dancing in the streets over this horse,'' Campbell said, "and they still are.''
The shutterbugs, whether armed with smartphones or more sophisticated long lenses, capture images of a colt that, Campbell said, "looks the part of a champion and always has. He's easy to work with and anxious to do well. I would say he's racing's version of Derek Jeter in that he goes about his business in a quiet, confident way and performs at a high level.''
Perhaps 120 people showed up early eight days ago to watch Palace Malice work, and another large contingent braved the chill of Tuesday morning to observe the champion go about his business. They remembered the Belmont, of course, but another theme continually surrounds the son of the great champion Curlin.
Fans love the Triple Crown victory, but they can't help but wonder: What might have been?
WHAT MIGHT HAVE HAPPENED
Sports are like life; there are good days and bad days, good luck and bad.
The favorite does not always win. Ask the Colts against the Jets in Super Bowl III or the Yankees against the Pirates in the 1960 World Series.
Racing aficionados remember Secretariat's losing to a colt named Onion and Man o' War's only setback to a rival called Upset.
Palace Malice almost had a monopoly on misfortune this year, some of his own making but more from inexplicably poor judgment from Hall of Fame jockeys.
Campbell does not play the woulda-coulda-shoulda game, but he cannot forget Edgar Prado's allowing Palace Malice to get blocked in the Louisiana Derby or Mike Smith's holding the colt back after a poor start in the Travers.
That's without mentioning Palace Malice's self-inflicted woes "â‚¬" losing concentration near the wire in the Bluegrass, slowing and losing by a neck, or his bolting to the lead and setting a suicidal pace in the Kentucky Derby.
"We were disappointed with the results on occasion,'' Dogwood vice president Jack Sadler said, "but we were never disappointed in the colt or his effort.''
The Travers remains a bitter pill for Campbell. Despite the poor ride, Palace Malice came flying down the stretch and finished fourth "â‚¬" by three-quarters of a length. What if the jockey had urged him closer rather than leaving him so far back until the stretch?
"The worst luck was the Breeders' Cup Classic,'' Campbell said.
Smith had chosen to ride Game on Dude, another contender in racing's version of a championship series, and John Velazquez signed on to ride Palace Malice. But Velazquez took a fall in an early race and had to be hospitalized. That left Campbell and trainer Todd Pletcher scrambling for a last-minute replacement.
"Unbelievable,'' Campbell said. "We got a good rider (Rafael Bejarano), but he had never been on the colt before. Johnny had worked with him and was anxious for the ride. You always wonder what might have happened, but he still had a great year.''
'WE'RE GOING RACING'
Palace Malice started 10 times in 2013, winning the Belmont and Jim Dandy Stakes, placing in the Bluegrass and Jockey Gold Cup (against older horses) and coming in third in the Risen Star. Although bucked shins curtailed his 2-year-old season, he has earned almost $1.5 million.
And, Campbell said, barring injury, he is not through on the track.
In these days that owners retire high-profile horses to stud at the earliest opportunity, Palace Malice will race again in 2014, and maybe longer.
"We're racing people, and we're going racing,'' Campbell said simply.
With his record and pedigree, Palace Malice could command upward of $8-10 million from breeders, and prospective owners have made offers. Campbell remains firm on his plans and expects Palace Malice to begin his 4-year-old season in the New Orleans Handicap in late March.
No matter what happens then and later, Palace Malice has created a treasure chest full of memories for both Campbell and Aiken. Purchased for $200,000 as a 2-year-old "â‚¬" "I was lucky to get him,'' the Dogwood president said "â‚¬" he trained in Aiken for several months before heading to the races.
He provided Campbell with his second Triple Crown victory in the Belmont Stakes "â‚¬" Summer Squall captured the 1990 Preakness "â‚¬" and the longtime horseman obviously relishes the memory.
"They turned for home and he ran by (Preakness winner) Oxbow,'' Campbell said. "I thought, 'Oh, my, looka here.' Then he went by (Kentucky Derby winner) Orb, and I thought, 'Oh, Lord, he's going to win it.' He ran such a wonderful race.
"That was such a great thrill. I'm a traditionalist, and the Belmont has so much tradition. Man o' War, Secretariat, Citation all won the Belmont. Palace Malice gave (racing) a popular win. Then, to go to Saratoga with a Belmont win under our belt was absolutely wonderful, one of the great highlights of my life.''
Now, Palace Malice is enjoying a little R and R. He will work Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings at 8:30, but there will be no heavy lifting. He will finish on the track quickly, then head back to the barn to cool down and, of course, pause for pictures and get his trademark peppermints from Campbell.
"Most horses are not cut out to be stars,'' Campbell said. "He is.''