NEW YORK -- Once again, the "Test of the Champion" proved otherwise.
A day after Palace Malice pulled off an upset in the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown, the race for a championship is wide open now that each of the classics has been won by a different 3-year-old.
"Everyone goes into the rest of the summer and fall with similar resumes," trainer Todd Pletcher said Sunday morning, declaring that his Belmont winner is "feeling very good.
"I don't think there's a clear-cut leader."
In a Belmont featuring a rematch between Kentucky Derby winner Orb and Preakness winner Oxbow, it was one of Pletcher's record five entries that handled the 1 1/2-mile marathon the best.
The son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin took the lead from Oxbow on the far turn and barrelled down the stretch for a 3 1/4-length victory Saturday. Orb made a run at the leaders from way back in the field of 14, but didn't come close and finished third, 1 3/4 lengths behind Oxbow.
"To try to make up that much ground is almost impossible because it's so tiring," Orb's trainer Shug McGaughey said. "Those horses shook loose and we couldn't catch them."
The Belmont has been a heartbreaker for decades. This one prevented Orb or Oxbow from rising to the top of the 3-year-old class. Other Belmonts, though, have done in 11 horses who tried and failed to become a Triple Crown champion, leaving the sport without one for 35 years.
Orb was feeling the effects of the Triple Crown grind of three races in five weeks at different tracks and different distances.
"I went down and looked at him a little later (after the race), and he was kind of hanging his head," he said. "He was tired. He'll get a good month of rehab time and see where it takes us."
Orb, Oxbow and Will Take Charge, who was 10th in the Belmont, ran in all three Triple Crown races. They will get their time off. Palace Malice, meanwhile, was full of energy and Pletcher said his colt would be back on the track in four days to resume training.
Having a well-rested horse for the Belmont seems to have its benefits. Since 2000, there have been seven Belmont winners who ran in the Derby but skipped the Preakness. And, all four of the Triple Crown tries during that time were spoiled by horses who did not run in the Preakness.
"It's not coincidental at all," said Pletcher, who also won the 2007 Belmont with Rags to Riches. "If you want to win the Belmont, it makes a lot of sense to sit out the middle one. The fresh horse is always going to have an edge, in my opinion."
Which is exactly the way Pletcher played it this year. He sent out a record-tying five horses in the Derby, and his best finisher was third-place Revolutionary. Palace Malice ran 12th. He sat out the Preakness, and came back with a record five horses for the Belmont. Fortunately, one of them was Palace Malice, who finally came through with the big race Pletcher thought he was capable of producing.
"If you look back at his races, he ran well in the allowance (to start the year). He almost got there in the Risen Star. The Louisiana Derby was a nightmare trip, and he came really close to winning the Blue Grass," Pletcher said of the colt he trains for Cot Campbell's Dogwood Stable. "His Derby race wasn't that bad, he just went too fast. He was still right there at the eighth pole, so when he came back and trained like he did, there was never any consideration about not trying the Belmont."
For now, the leading 3-year-old looks to be Orb, who won five in a row -- including the Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby -- before finishing fourth in the Preakness and third in the Derby. Oxbow has two other wins to go with his Preakness, along with a sixth in the Derby and a second in the Belmont.
Oxbow came out of the race in good shape, and was already on his way back to Kentucky, along with trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
"Everyone was tickled with his performance," Lukas' assistant Leigh Bentley. "He ran super and seemed to come back great. Everyone was quite pleased."
A few more wins by Palace Malice, or soon to be returning 3-year-old Verrazano (also trained by Pletcher) could put them in the mix as well.
"He is a remarkable horse," Pletcher said of Palace Malice. "He bounces out of his races really well. It was a tough race, a demanding race, and he surprises me how resilient he is."
So let the summer season begin. The highlight is the Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 24, the next time the classic winners might meet again. And before that there's the Jim Dandy at the Spa on July 27 and the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on July 28.
Asked if he'll have five more horses for the Travers, Pletcher smiled.
"We'll see how it shakes out," he said.
Unlimited Budget, the filly who finished sixth under Rosie Napravnik, came out of the race in good shape. Pletcher said her next start would be back against fillies in the Coaching Club American Oaks on July 20.