Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - There's no Eclipse Award specifically for 4-year-olds, but if there were the division title could well be determined with the running of Saturday's Whitney Handicap at Saratoga.
Of the nine horses entered in the $1.5 million, 1 1/8-mile Whitney six are 4- year-olds led by Eclipse Award winner Will Take Charge and current leading thoroughbred Palace Malice.
Palace Malice comes into the Whitney sporting an undefeated record from four starts this season and was rightly pronounced the even-money favorite when the post positions were drawn Wednesday.
"I think right now he'd be a strong candidate to be Horse of the Year," said Cot Campbell, president of Palace Malice's ownership group Dogwood Stable.
Trained by Todd Pletcher, the colt has won three one-mile races this year with a victory in the 1 1/8-mile New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds four months ago.
"I would say his ideal distance is a mile and an eighth, mile and a quarter," Campbell said Tuesday during a conference call. "Of course, he's won from six- and-a-half furlongs to a mile-and-a-half. But, I think it's great for him. He is a serious, serious race horse and he'd be the most exciting one we've had."
As a 3-year-old in 2013, Palace Malice was up and down in races beyond 1 1/8 miles, winning the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes while finishing 12th and sixth, respectively, in the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic, and getting second in the 1 1/4-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup.
"I think about a month ago, right after the Met Mile, I said we would run in the Whitney, the Woodward, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and the Breeders' Cup (Classic)," Campbell noted. "In a perfect world, we would make those four."
Palace Malice and Will Take Charge, the 4-1 second pick for the Whitney, are meeting for the first time since the Classic last November when Will Take Charge made a late charge to drop a nose decision to Mucho Macho Man.
"We're the champion until someone dethrones us," said D. Wayne Lukas, Will Take Charge's trainer. "We're the champion, we earned it last year, (and) we're not making apologies for anything."
Owned by Willis Horton and Three Chimneys Stable, Will Take Charge has just one win in five starts this year with three seconds and a sixth.
"He's quite a horse, and I think he's the best horse in the country right now," Lukas said. "We have to go out and prove it; prove it a couple of different times, I'm sure - three, four more times to get where we want to get. Like I said in the press conference, I feel like he's still the champion, and I feel very good about the fact that we all get together on the same racetrack."
In their last three head-to-head meetings, give the advantage to Will Take Charge.
Although Palace Malice won the Jim Dandy Stakes, Will Take Charge was just a length back in second. Lukas' colt won the Travers when Palace Malice was fourth and, of course, the Breeders' Cup Classic.
"He cost himself the Travers when he missed the break. He cost himself any chance of winning the Breeders' Cup Classic when he missed the break," Pletcher said about his 4-year-old. "So it seems like this year - and hopefully I'm not jinxing myself - he's been very professional, and he's broke alertly and put himself in good spots."
The morning line itself is an indication of the difference between these two 4-year-olds coming into the Whitney. The gap between even-money and 4-1 is a wide one especially when talking about two of the leading thoroughbreds on the racing scene.
"I think you certainly have to put the Whitney up there as one of the most coveted prizes in American racing," Pletcher said. "It's a historic race. It's the focal race for older horses at our most prestigious meet. It carries a lot of weight for championship honors. It's a race we hold in very high regard."