The two Hall of Fame jockeys were just about nose to nose as their horses hit the middle of the final turn of the Belmont Stakes.
Gary Stevens, aboard Preakness winner Oxbow, was going to relinquish the lead to the hard-charging Palace Malice, and he knew it. He glanced over to his right and looked at good friend Mike Smith and told him: "You go on with him big boy, you're moving better than me."
Was he ever.
Palace Malice seized the lead with a quarter-mile to go Saturday in the final leg of the Triple Crown and ran off to a 3¼-length victory over Oxbow at Belmont Park, with Kentucky Derby winner Orb another 1¾ lengths back in third.
"Mike rode a superb race," Stevens said. "Midway around the turn, I said, 'Well maybe.' But I have ridden long enough to know that he (Oxbow) was going to walk home. To finish second, I am really surprised."
Palace Malice, who came into the race with only one win in seven starts, vindicated trainer Todd Pletcher's support of the 3-year-old colt despite a 12th place finish in the Derby.
"It's huge. It's huge," Pletcher said about his second Belmont win. "We always felt like he had a big one in him. We were just waiting for it to finally develop. I told (owner) Mr. (Cot) Campbell this horse is training unbelievable. I know he's got a big run, we just need to put it all together."
The Belmont concludes a Triple Crown season in which hopes were high that Orb could break the 35-year drought without a sweep of the classics. In fact, it's the fourth time in five years each race was won by a different horse.
Palace Malice, who skipped the Preakness, covered the 1½ miles in a slow 2:30.70 on a fast track following a 24-hour downpour. A crowd of 47,562 turned out on a warm, sunny afternoon as Tropical Storm Andrea moved out of the area.
For the second time during this Triple Crown run, Pletcher sent out five horses. He came up short in the Derby five weeks ago, skipped the Preakness and regrouped, and came through at his home track for an owner who has supported him from the start.
"It's the mother of all great moments, I'll tell you that," the 85-year old Campbell said. "I'm proud for Dogwood and proud for my partners, and I'm proud of Todd, one of the greatest horse trainers of all time."
Sent off at odds of 13-1, Palace Malice returned $29.60, $11.20 and $6.70. Oxbow, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, returned $9.90 and $6.10, and Orb, the 2-1 favorite trained by Shug McGaughey, paid $3.30.
"He made a good run around the turn, but we had given up so much," McGaughey said about the colt who was still ninth with a half-mile to go and just could not make up the difference. "I don't think he got tired. He put up a pretty good run to get where he was, and those horses just weren't coming back."
Incognito was fourth, followed by Revolutionary, the filly Unlimited Budget, Overanalyze, Vyjack, Golden Soul, Will Take Charge, Giant Finish, Midnight Taboo, Freedom Child and Frac Daddy.
Rosie Napravnik, who was aboard Unlimited Budget, became the first female to ride in all three Triple Crown races in the same year. She was trying to become the second female jockey to win a Triple Crown race.
Pletcher's other Belmont starters were Revolutionary, Unlimited Budget, Overanalyze and Midnight Taboo.
All week, Pletcher expressed optimism that Palace Malice was ready to unleash a big effort. On June 2, the son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin put in a blazing 4 furlong workout in 47.40 seconds. Pletcher called it one of the most impressive works he'd ever seen.
And it carried over to the race and gave the nation's leading trainer his second Belmont win (he won the 2007Belmont with the filly Rags to Riches) to go with his 2010 Derby win with Super Saver. Smith won his secondBelmont, having won aboard Drosselmeyer in 2010.
"The game plan was mapped out, and it really went according to plan," Smith said. "We were laying third on the outside of Oxbow, like we wanted. At the three-eighths, Gary said, 'Go on, little brother.' ... And we went on it with it, man."
The 14-horse field — the largest since 1996 — got off to an even start.
Frac Daddy and Freedom Child set out for the lead from their inside posts, with Oxbow not far behind. As the field came out of the turn, Oxbow had the lead heading into the long backstretch run. But unlike the Preakness, he had company up front and the pace was a bit quicker. By the time Oxbow reached the far turn, Palace Malice loomed and Orb was beginning to make a run from way back in the pack.
And that's when Palace Malice took charge. The only question was whether anyone was going to catch him. Unlike the Derby, Orb could not complete a come from behind victory. He couldn't even reel in the tiring Oxbow.
"It's been fun. I've got no problems with anything, everthing's fine with me," McGaughey said. "I just wish we wold have showed a little better performances in the Preakness and the Belmont."